We Are All Books In The Human Library

Looking at some storytelling resources I came across a related project I was unaware of. The Human Library trains volunteers to be “books” you withdraw to learn something about some taboo/prejudice/discomforting feelings you may have about a topic.  The Human Library tagline is “Unjudge Someone.”

The videos I have found are much better at explaining the process than any written materials I managed to come across.  The project was started in 2000 in Denmark by Ronni Abergel whose TEDx video is the first below. They have spread the idea to 84+ countries. The library project collects human books on different topics ranging from religion, race, national origin, belief/philosophy, gender, appearance, sexual identity, body type, disabilities, experiences and myriad other categories.

Librarians have a list of books available to be taken out on any particular day. The reader(s) (the conversations may be one on one or small group) request a human book on a topic they want to learn more about and then they go off to have an encounter for about 30 minutes. Since the organizers want to ensure a safe space for everyone, my impression is they limit the physical borders in which the books may be read.  According to Abergel, if there is a question the human book wishes not to answer, they respond by saying something along the lines of “that page has not been published yet.”

I am sure there are other measures they must take to make sure people feel safe. Perhaps it is part of the training they do with their human books. Participation requires making yourself really vulnerable. Abergel says we often censor ourselves in public and don’t ask questions that are considered impolite, (i.e. Why are you so fat?), and this is an opportunity to ask those questions.

He also cites an example of a reader not believing a human book was Muslim because they didn’t conform to an image they held about Muslims. I wasn’t quite sure if the person recognized they had preconceptions or if they refused to believe the truth of the situation. Regardless, I am sure there are some people who will leave still holding the beliefs they entered with.  The Human Library organization is making a bet that people’s notions will change at some point, even if it isn’t immediately.

On the other hand, the organization also knows that we all have some aspect of ourselves which would qualify us to be one of their books–something that others see as a taboo topic or would be uncomfortable discussing–it might be as simple as experiencing the death of a loved one. If they can get participants to recognize that then there is an opportunity for greater empathy.


Interviews with participants at a Human Library sited at University of Albany (NY)

Latest Shuttered Venue Grant FAQ Provides Increased Detail

While I am sure a lot of performing arts venues have been closely paying attention to news about Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program designed to help arts organizations impacted by Covid shutdowns, you probably wouldn’t have expected a major update to a government department’s FAQ document to be rolled out on a Sunday.

There was a major update to the SVOG FAQ on Sunday.

It isn’t difficult to identify what information is new because anything that didn’t appear in the February 12 update has a * next to it.

This version answers a lot of questions I have heard asked in webinars, including specific information about the eligibility of performing arts venues run by university, state and local governments. Similarly, there is detailed information which apply to museums.

The February 28 version also provides new definitions for a lot of terms like museum, promoter, regular programming, theatrical producer, performing arts organization operator, cover charge, mixing equipment, lighting rig, sound engineer, etc.

The question of what constituted fixed seating came up a lot in webinars I attended because it is a significant requirement to receive funding in some instances. In this version they added the following information:

*Would heavy bleachers pushed back against the wall when not in use but never removed from a theater qualify as fixed seating?

Yes. Any cumbersome seating not easily or regularly removed from a theater will be considered fixed.

While there is a requirement that people be paid fairly in the legislation, earlier versions of the FAQ explained that volunteer labor did not exclude a venue from apply if the staff managing the venue were paid. This means that many community theatre organizations may also be eligible for SVOG funding.

The FAQ that illustrates this best is probably the following, which also appeared in earlier versions:

If a venue’s box office is staffed by volunteers is it eligible to apply? Yes. Among the criteria included in the live venue operator or promoter definition is a requirement that a qualifying venue must engage at least one individual to perform at least two of the following roles: sound engineer, booker, promoter, stage manager security personnel, and box office manager. The Economic Aid Act does not reference any hired box office staff other than a box office manager and does not absolutely require even that position. As such, the use of volunteers to staff a venue’s box office would not preclude it from being eligible to apply for an SVOG.

There is also some oddly specific questions that makes me think the legislation was intentionally written to provide eligibility to a corporate entity.

Does a live venue operator who qualifies as an “eligible person or entity” remain eligible for an SVOG if that live venue operator has a minority investor (less than 51% ownership) that has more than 500 employees, locations in 11 or more states, and locations in 2 or more countries? Is that the only ownership/control-related grounds for disqualifying someone?

Yes. The Economic Aid Act speaks only of majority ownership and control in the context of the disqualifying conditions related to being listed on a stock exchange or to the geographic scope of operations and number of employees. There are no other control requirements in the statute.

If you hadn’t researched SVOG funding or didn’t think you qualified, the latest version of the FAQ should provide a greater degree of clarity than any previous version. (Though the additional detail may dash the hopes generated by the previous vagueness.)

What Outcome Had The US Have Sustained Its Version Of The BBC?

Back in December, Joseph Horowitz had a lengthy piece in The American Scholar about the impact of the pandemic on the arts in America. I may revisit the article in future posts, but there was one section that caught my attention because it seemed a testament to both the influence of a shared cultural ideal and the power of leaders who advance an agenda.

Horowitz writes that while there was resistance to government run media a la the BBC, there seemed to be enough will and interest post-Works Progress Administration to support programming featuring public intellectuals and artists.

A little-known footnote to this 1930s saga of the artist and the state was an unsuccessful campaign to implement an “American BBC,” … An alliance of university and radio leaders argued that a public radio system would ghettoize education. “Controlled radio” was also denounced as a “threat to democracy.” Crucially, David Sarnoff and William Paley, leading NBC and CBS respectively, were visionaries for whom an educational mission incorporating culture was a genuine priority, whatever its commercial liabilities…

Later, when TV entered the picture, CBS initiated Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus specials and Young People’s Concerts, and Sarnoff created an NBC Opera offering innovative productions of opera in English. But Paley retired as president in 1959, Sarnoff in 1970; their successors gradually abandoned the high mission at hand. PBS and NPR, ironically, have offered nothing remotely as ambitious as the arts programming CBS and NBC once championed. If American arts audiences today compare unfavorably with audiences elsewhere, the minimal role of the state—the cumulative absence of an “American BBC”—is far from irrelevant.

I frequently hear people extolling Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and wonder why no one tries to replicate them since they were so well-received, but Horowitz’s piece recounts how the lack of investment, both in terms of general policy and economics, allowed both opportunity and popular will and interest in these experiences to wane.

Even though the Western canon of arts and literature were lionized to the exclusion of others during this era, a different infrastructure would exist today to amplify a shift telling a broader range of stories had focus and investment been sustained.

Horowitz’s conclusion near the close of the article is that the upheaval cause by the pandemic has provided another set of opportunities to effect enduring change if we are ready to take it.

Be Sure Your Data Doesn’t Just Mean You Are Good At Posting Memes

If you have been reading my writing for the last few years, you know that in addition to employing the preceding phrase fairly often, I argue that not everything that can be measured about an arts organization’s activity is a valid measure of the value of the organization and the work it does.

What should also be acknowledged as a corollary to that is that not all data is created equal or equally valuable. Since there is a growing push for arts organizations to do a better job of embracing data-driven decision making .

Over at Arts Hacker, I recently summarized a post by Colleen Dilenschneider distinguishing between key performance indicators (KPIs), diagnostic metrics and vanity metrics.

Briefly, KPIs measure progress toward your mission/goals, diagnostic metrics inform KPIs and vanity metrics sound impressive, but aren’t an indication of any sort of progress. (i.e. Your social media engagement increased 1000% in a week because you posted a kitten meme.)

The problem, Dillenschneider says, is that valuing vanity metrics can result in allocating resources away from mission focused activities and evaluation. For example, the executive director may suddenly gain national prominence and invitations to speak at conferences, etc. which may raise the profile of the organization and make many stakeholders extremely proud of their association.

But if this isn’t contributing to a recognition of problems with the quality of the work being done and the poor community interactions that are occurring, then there is no value to having a year over year increase in the number of speaking invitations.

If you are trying to use data to inform your decisions, take a look at the post. The line between KPIs and diagnostic metrics can be confusing and it can be easy to categorize the latter as part of the former without a reminder of the dividing line.


Yes, Data Driven Decision Making. But What Data Is Important?