Never judge a book by its cover. But if you come across terms such as homeless, brain damaged, unemployed, autistic or bipolar, wouldn’t some kind of stereotypical or prejudicial image arise in your mind? Wouldn’t you be tempted to ignore such a book in favour of selecting one featuring a more comfortable topic?
But what if that book could talk, and tell you its story? What if it gave you a whole new perspective, one you hadn’t considered before? What if the book was a person?
Welcome to The Human Library, an international equalities movement operating in more than 70 countries, where, instead of loaning a book from a library, readers borrow a human book – a person – for a conversation about a challenging issue.
Set up in Denmark in 2000, The Human Library seeks to challenge prejudice and discrimination and promote equality and diversity. Its website states that it was ‘developed to challenge societal prejudices wherever and for whatever reasons they occur, and to help people form a better understanding of those with whom they share their communities’.
The initiative was conceived by an organisation called Stop the Violence, established by five friends in Copenhagen in 1993 after a friend was stabbed at a nightclub. He survived, but co-founders Dany Abergel, Ronni Abergel, Thomas Bertelsen, Christoffer Erichsen and Asma Mouna began to organise workshops for young people throughout Denmark to mobilise them against violence, where community members were encouraged to get involved and speak to participants.
Seven years later, when the group staged the first Human Library event at the annual Roskilde Festival, they had a network of more than 30,000 across the country from which to draw participants. Today, The Human Library operates in six continents across hundreds of cities and towns, as well as online, involving communities from as far afield as Australia and Kazakhstan.
Usually, a local library, school, community group or festival decides to host an event and contacts The Human Library to access support in terms of book title suggestions and guidelines for readers.
The events tend to be culture-specific to the host community to give more meaning and power to the messages emanating from the conversations, and readers leave with a better understanding of the diversity among their neighbours, which they had been oblivious to.
The unique conversations that flow from the sessions have the potential to heal rifts in communities. As Ronni points out: ‘How are we to understand each other if we don’t have the opportunity to talk to each other?’
At one such event, Rebecca Fuss, director of programming and outreach at the Friends and Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, in New York, ensured her human books were not only good storytellers, but also representative of the city as a whole.
‘We went looking for marginalised stories, stories that could only be told in Rochester,’ she says.
Colleagues, friends, and library-goers offered various suggestions – classmates, teachers, friends and neighbours with interesting backgrounds and experiences.
‘This book knows the face of hunger and poverty in urban and rural settings in our area,’ read the description for a participant whose title was African American Community Activist. Another title on the list was The Butler Did It – a look at the history of the role from managing a household to quirky dining tips.
‘Our human books have many different chapters and we wanted their titles to reflect that,’ says Rebecca. ‘This isn’t Denmark. We are a diverse community, but segregated. That’s Rochester. People go their whole lives here without having a meaningful conversation with someone outside of their community.
‘This is why conversations that occur at The Human Library are so important in order for us to understand and accept one another. Libraries are a trusted, safe space for these deep exchanges to happen.’
Former US Air Force pilot David Dornford, who has gone by the title Vietnam Veteran at two Human Library events in Rochester, was court-martialled during the war for refusing to fly a B-52 bomber aircraft, and is described by Rebecca as one of her bestsellers.
‘People at The Human Library events sometimes call me a conscientious objector, but I tell them it was a purely personal decision,’ says David.
‘It is political for me now, but at the time, it was personal. I was thinking about my life, my decisions and the Vietnamese people, for whom I had developed a deep affection. I would do one of these events every week if I could.’
Human Book and professor Ellen Koskoff, who has written about feminism and gender in music, took part in a recent Rochester event. ‘This is my third stint as a human book and the reason it tickles me so much is because as a child, I used books as a way to escape things that weren’t so pleasant, and I often wanted to live in one,’ she says.
‘Eventually I came to want to be a book. I was delighted last year when I was asked by staff at the library if I would be a human book. To me, that seemed a wonderful circle, a wonderful way of integrating who I am now with that childhood fantasy.
‘I am very appreciative of being part of this unique experience.’
Human books at any event are selected because they are people with a particular personal experience or perspective on life and have often been negatively portrayed or come to represent a stereotype.
Every human book has a unique story to tell, and no conversation between a subject and its readers is the same.
After browsing through a list or catalogue with a title and description for each book, a reader selects one to check out. He or she then meets the book for a one-on-one 30-minute talk. Readers are able to ask questions on the book’s subject, seek advice and learn about different perspectives.
The conversations are free-flowing without a prescribed plan and develop in their own way. No two readers ever read a human book in the same way.
Nick Little, director of the UK Human Library, says there are no fixed rules about where events can be held. Some successful ones have even been staged in busy shopping centres, ‘where people only expected to go and do their shopping, not come armed with a list of prepared questions’, making potentially difficult conversations natural and instinctive.
‘Exposure to diversity is at the heart of it,’ he points out.
‘It’s an event that encourages people to have a conversation with someone they might not normally meet in everyday life, or might feel uncomfortable about meeting, or unconsciously avoid.
‘It’s designed to challenge discrimination, prejudice, stereotype and stigma in a very upfront way.
‘We try to recruit as diverse a range of books as possible for each event to give a wide choice to potential readers. Our events cannot be single-themed to promote any particular cause.
‘We leave it absolutely up to you who to talk to. We don’t want it to be an interview; we want it to be a conversation, a dialogue between two people.’
At a recent event in a high school in Ottawa, Canada, there was a huge turnout. People had a list of local human books to choose from, including members of the Ottawa Police Service, Brendan Gillanders of the Ottawa Redblacks, the Canadian football team, and Dr Jack Kitts, president and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital.
Adrian, a regular attendee, says: ‘I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of human libraries, but I’m always impressed with the conversation and the kinds of questions students have. I always learn a lot through these situations and I like to share my experience.’
Canadian Human Library organiser Cathy Belanger says she enjoys the hush that descends over the venue with 300-400 people in it. ‘They’re just engrossed in conversation with a book. It’s wonderful.’
Examples of effective titles in various locations are Refugee, Bipolar, Migrant Worker, Punk and Traveller.
The Human Library addresses prejudices harboured by people towards the less fortunate, who could range from the physically challenged to economically marginalised.
In order to challenge a stereotype or prejudice, the book title needs to directly relate to it so it can be easily understood by potential readers. The Human Library is modelled on traditional libraries with a booking out system. It offers a choice of subject matter, all of which is intended to be shared and connect the public to facilitate an exchange of ideas and inspire learning.
‘The lesson The Human Library gave me is the recognition that I already have a stock of friends in college who have backgrounds different from mine and now is the time to get to those difficult, massively important discussions,’ says a reader who attended a recent event in the US.
The unpredictable and unprecedented conversations that arose at Roskilde between a policeman and graffiti writer, a politician and a youth activist, and a football fan and feminist set the scene for Human Library events the world over.
That police officer, Erik Pontoppidan, eloquently sums up its success: ‘In all my years in the police force, I’ve never experienced anything this powerful.’
Meet some bestsellers
Since its inception 16 years ago at Roskilde Festival, The Human Library has grown into a global institution operating in over 70 countries.
Excerpts from The Human Library website
‘I find it very difficult to find love and to build relations. I wish more people would give me a bigger chance and not be so fast to cut ties. I often wonder how much of a part the autism plays in this and just wish one day I could find a girl’
The Human Library published his story because millions of people in the world have autism. Most common stereotypes include references to the movie Rain Man and mocking special abilities. Others are about unpredictable behaviour, outbursts and lack of social competence.
‘When I shipped out to go to Afghanistan, I never imagined that my biggest battle would be one I now have to fight every day – a battle for my sanity.’
Prejudices about soldiers include theories on their motives for signing up to fight, bloodthirstiness, a proclivity for violence and the desire to live out childhood fantasies of combat, spurred by computer game scenarios, in real life. Deafblind
‘I’m not angry about my situation. I don’t even get angry with cab drivers who refuse to pick me up because of my guide dog. But I think it important to give people a chance to understand what life looks like through my eyes.’
The Human Library first published Deafblind in 2014 in Copenhagen when a deafblind couple joined a book depot thanks to the local association for the deaf-blind.
Some of the most common stereotypes about the deaf-blind are based on their ability to move around in public, relation to the labour market and social opportunities.
‘I live on the streets. I live from day to day and I have no roof over my head. No restroom to visit, no kitchen to make a coffee. I am homeless.’
An estimated 100 million people are homeless worldwide. This group is widely exposed to verbal abuse and hate crimes.
The most common prejudice is the assumption that people who are homeless brought it upon themselves through bad life choices.
‘Being unemployed does nothing good for your self-esteem. But when politicians start talking about us being lazy and not willing to work, it gets my blood pumping. There’s nothing I would not do to find a real job. But the least they can do is show us some respect and treat us with just a little dignity.’
Unemployment can happen to anyone and it is a very serious problem for large numbers of people around the world today.
There are strong prejudices against the unemployed, the most common being that they do not want to work and that they’re only looking to collect welfare cheques.
‘I do not view being bipolar as a challenge, but rather as a condition for my life. Periodically I must take extra consideration to my health. For example, sleep is enormously essential for keeping my illness in check. If I do not sleep eight to 10 hours every night, I will become ill.’
Stereotypes are rife when it comes to those who suffer from various conditions such as bipolar disorder. One such idea is that bipolar people are mentally unstable or fragile, where, in fact, argues this human book, she is stronger than most people. ‘Some think being mentally ill means I ought to be hospitalised, strapped to a bed and kept under total surveillance,’ she adds. ‘“Did you ever try to torch something or start gambling when being manic?” is one question I get.’
‘Being allowed to explain what the world looks like through my eyes helps me feel better understood and I feel my readers benefit from the talk, in spite of my speech impediment’.
Living with brain damage can place many constraints on those affected. The condition is often referred to as a vegetative state or is a reference for low intelligence. The most common is that people with brain damage are helpless and unable to take care of or provide for themselves.
To sign up for or introduce The Human Library in your city, visit humanlibrary.org.