Human library

What if books were people? Or people were books?

The Human Library is an organization that organizes and inspires events in which participants can “check out” a human Book for a conversation. The Books are people who volunteer to express roles that are often the subject of negative prejudice, like The Police Officer, The Male Nanny, or The Atheist. Readers page through a catalog of Books and choose one to check out.

The University of Arkansas has its Human Library catalog online where you can see more examples. Some that caught my eye are “Come, Learn Braille” and “10 Reasons to See Ukraine.”

I love this idea. I remember the first time that I realized that a written book could have the power to give me experiences that I would never have in my own life. This happened in middle school, while reading Orson Scott Card’s “Xenocide,” which features a main character who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was something I knew vaguely about, but reading Xenocide put me so far into Han Qing-jao’s head that I felt her emotional ups and downs and the pangs of her compulsions. (The fact that these are interpreted as religious imperatives, in the book, made it all the more poignant.)

And if a book could come to life and have an interactive conversation with you, what then? It’s known that real-life contact with someone from a marginalized demographic can change world views and overturn prejudices. Contact with the stranger makes them less strange. Contact with the unknown can also reveal your own previously unknown prejudices.

I expect that reading a human Book is a powerful experience, and the context in which it is framed is brilliant. If you are not already a member of a particular group, you might hesitate to strike up conversation with a Muslim or Jew or Christian or street sweeper or circusmaster or gay parent or grocery bagger — how would that begin? But we are already comfortable with brushing up against Books with very divergent ideas in a Library, where anyone is free to check out anything. And these Books are there because they want to engage in conversation; you need not fear that you are being invasive. Your questions are welcomed.

The Santa Monica public library hosted Human Library events in 2008 and 2009, and Loyola Marymount University had an event in 2012. I’ll have to keep my eyes out for other Human Library events so I can try one out in person!

1 Comment

  1. Claire said,

    April 9, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    I also thought the Human Library was a very cool idea. I suspect that some of those discussions can get pretty heated, because I bet some of the people who go into them have very strong opinions that they are determined not to change. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic. I’m sure there are also people who go into it wanting to better understand other people and experiences around the world, and that’s the most beautiful part for me. And if people can make the connection between the human’s story, and a similar story in a book, so much the better for traditional libraries!

Post a Comment

I knew this already. I learned something new!