WE THE PEOPLE
The Human Library Aims to Bring Forth Social Change
by Nancy K. Herther
The Human Library describes itself as “a library of people.” It hosts events during which people can “borrow human beings” who are “serving as open books” so that they can have conversations they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Each human “book” represents a marginalized societal group—people who are discriminated against based on “their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin etc.” The Human Library’s goal is to become “a worldwide movement for social change … [o]ne conversation at a time.”
Established in 2000 by Ronni Abergel, his brother Dany, and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen, the Human Library is a global initiative that merges people’s curiosity, understanding, and acceptance with a traditional library framework. In any Human Library depot (or, currently, during organized virtual events), average people (“readers”) can request to have a conversation with (“read”) someone who identifies in a particular way. Readers “check out” these “human books” for a “loan period” of 30 minutes. Abergel describes the program in his book, Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Living Library Organiser’s Guide. Today, the Human Library has operations in 85 countries and on every continent except Antarctica.
MISSOURI STATE UNIVERSITY’S HUMAN LIBRARY
In October 2021, Missouri State University–West Plains’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee hosted a Human Library event for faculty members, staffers, students, alumni, and community members at its Garnett Library. There were 60 people in attendance, and 21 stories were shared. Angela Totty, dean of student services, tells me that for the next event, she will make adjustments based on what she learned about the logistics. “I had many more students attend than expected, which was great, but pairing them up with the storytellers took much longer than anticipated, and they only heard one story,” she says. “In the future, I will have the storytellers arrive ahead of the start time and be stationed in their area, and as soon as a student selects, they will go immediately to their resource and not wait to be paired. That is if we can do an in-person event. I would consider a Zoom experience, but would need to work on the logistics of that. I know there are ways you can have breakout sessions in Zoom, as I have personally experienced that in a meeting, but I have never set one up. We were able to complete our fall event with no virus spread, and I’m hopeful that by the time we do another this spring, the current surge will decline, and it can be in person as well.”
GREEN RUN HIGH SCHOOL’S HUMAN LIBRARY
“We believe it is important for students to have a stake in their learning and to make education both tangible and rooted in the real world,” says Kelly Logue-Echols, literacy coach at Virginia Beach’s Green Run High School, in an interview. “Because of these beliefs, we had the students study and learn about the Human Library before joining the project. We asked the students if this was something they wanted to try.”
Logue-Echols feels that making it an optional program helped students want to invest in it. “We also set class norms and boundaries to ensure success. We talked about appropriate responses and how to support classmates. Laying this groundwork helped to create a level of trust and comfort for the class. We met virtually with students daily to provide meaningful feedback and offer support throughout the project. At the end of the task, we had students reflect on the process. Overall, students were inspired by one another,” Logue-Echols notes. “This experience promoted collaboration, talking, and listening, which all resulted in a stronger classroom dynamic.” In addition, many students expressed that they had thought they were alone in a certain feeling until hearing a fellow student express it in their story. Logue-Echols continues, “We were actively looking for ways to help our kids connect because of the isolation surrounding COVID-19. The Human Library helped fill this void even in a virtual world.”
ROCKFORD UNIVERSITY’S HUMAN LIBRARY
“The Human Library framework fits in well with Rockford University’s focus on social justice; one of our most famous alumni is Jane Addams, who started Hull House in Chicago,” says Joanna Mladic, electronic resources librarian and archivist at Illinois’ Rockford University, in an interview. “There was a lot of collaboration in order to make the event a success. Duane Wilke of the Human Library Northern Illinois Chapter was instrumental in helping to organize the human books for the event.”
Rockford University hosted Human Library events in 2019 and 2021. “It was not difficult to ensure buy-in from the institution and audiences because of our social justice focus and wanting to support an inclusive learning environment,” says Mladic. “We would gladly host another
Human Library event on campus because of the importance of understanding each other’s experiences and building relationships in the community. We would expect the same value in hosting this event virtually; however, we would prefer to continue to host the Human Library event in-person because of its impact.”
WASHTENAW COMMUNITY COLLEGE’S HUMAN LIBRARY
Molly Ledermann, faculty librarian at Michigan’s Washtenaw Community College, tells me about the planning process for her library’s successful program, which is focused on building audience buy-in: “I plan out a drip-marketing campaign that begins in November and continues until the event in March. The marketing includes recruiting faculty to attend with their classes, recruiting faculty to volunteer as books, recruiting students to volunteer as books, and promoting campus-wide attendance of the event. We have for-credit or extra-credit assignment templates related to the event that can be adapted. Faculty who commit to bringing their classes to the event are added to a VIP list so that they are the first to know when the virtual bookshelf listing the books that will be available goes live.” Ledermann notes that a variety of departments participate in the program, including nursing, dentistry, English, psychology, and communications. “Our instructors have seen the impact that this event has on students and how the experience connects directly to course content,” Ledermann says.
Finding good “books” hasn’t proven to be a problem for Ledermann. To participate, “one just needs to be willing to share their story, whatever it might be.” All of the “books” are required to attend a training session before the event. “That is where we help them craft a title and book description and learn how to tell a story in 5–7 minutes to engage readers and spark discussion. We make sure that all of our books have all of their questions answered, and we always have safety precautions in place so that it is very easy for a book to get help or shut down a conversation if something goes wrong,” Ledermann says. They’ve never had to put any of the safety precautions into practice, “but our books feel much better knowing that they have any easy way to get help immediately, if needed. We’re looking for someone talking about their lived experience. We find value in all experiences.”
OKLAHOMA UNIVERSITY’S HUMAN LIBRARY
In 2019, Oklahoma University sponsored a Human Library event, organized by Youssef Kamel, an international area studies and religious studies senior and president of the university’s International Advisory Committee. More than 31 “books” participated, and between 100 and 150 “readers” participated. “The main problem of getting the Human Library off the ground for us was slightly struggling with the licensing aspect of it and following the exact guidelines—something we tried to do to the best of our ability. However, the Human Library instructions were clear and streamlined the process nevertheless,” Kamel says in an interview.
“We had a large turnout at the event,” Kamel says, “and even passersby who did not specifically see marketing for the event prior ended up coming due to the flexible nature of the event, since you only needed 15 minutes for a conversation.” There was more interest in becoming a “book” than Kamel had originally anticipated. “We tried to represent everyone—we had people who are openly queer, international students from all over, people who have had specific unique experiences, religious minorities, and ethnoracial marginalized groups.”
IGNITING THE POWER OF STORYTELLING
In April 2021, the first independent impact study of the Human Library format was released by the Danish research consultancy Analyse & Tal. Analyst Jakob Kristensen reports on the Human Library’s website that the findings indicate high satisfaction and significant short-term impact among the participants: “We focused on the intensity of people’s experiences. I was surprised to see that so many participants were able to recall vivid details of the event, as well as the recurring thoughts they had about their experiences in the months that followed. The level of detail and excitement they could recount was impressive. Based on our experience, we would label this as a significant impact.”
Rockford University’s Mladic believes the value of the Human Library is that it “really shows how humanity is so broad, and so diverse, and it really can highlight all of our very unique qualities and all of the short stories that we have to share.” For an excellent starting point in planning your own Human Library, check out the information in a guide created by Utah State University, Human Library How-To (see the sidebar for the link). The University of Virginia Library has a good description of its event on its site (see the sidebar for the link).
“Storytelling has the power to engage, influence, teach and inspire listeners,” psychologist and professional storyteller Lani Peterson writes in “The Science Behind the Art of Storytelling.” Peterson continues, “That’s why we argue for organizations to build a storytelling culture and place storytelling at the heart of their learning programs. There’s an art to telling a good story, and we all know a good story when we hear one. But there’s also a science behind the art of storytelling. … [W]e know from experience that when we’re listening to a good story—rich in detail, full of metaphor, expressive of character—we tend to imagine ourselves in the same situation. Just think about all those scary stories told around the campfire. Your heart rate increases, you get goosebumps, the hair on the back of your neck stands on end. The stories told in a business setting might not be quite as dramatic (or hair-raising), but nevertheless can be more impactful than data alone.” Stories help us relate to each other as humans and help us feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The Human Library’s mission is worthwhile if we want to build a society of more empathetic people—one conversation at a time.