Welcome to Brampton, a vibrant, multicultural city with a significant newcomer population and a median age of just 36 1/2 years. Located in the greater Toronto area in the region of Peel, Brampton has grown exponentially in recent decades to become Canada’s ninth-largest and third-fastest-growing city, with an estimated population of more than 700,000. In an attempt to keep pace with the city’s rapid growth, Brampton Library now has eight large branches, some standalone, others co-located with community centers.
I became Brampton Library’s manager of marketing and communications in 2015, after many years as an independent consultant in the publishing industry. I was drawn to the opportunity to enhance the brand of the public library, to strengthen its perceived relevance, and to increase its membership. As marketers, we know that beyond our libraries’ offerings, it is the more abstract idea of the public library as the community’s place for belonging that drives us forward. That’s especially important here: The city’s immigrant population has risen significantly over the past 2 decades, and it is predicted that by 2051, 92% of Brampton’s population growth will be due to immigration.
In this article, I’ll explain the concept of the “Human Library” and the way it relates to Brampton Library’s support of newcomers and vision of inspiring connections. Our staffers have held five Human Library programs over the past 10 years (four in-branch and one over Zoom), so they know these events have the power to break down barriers and to build community. The programs also promote the value and relevance of the public library, which spurs membership growth. And in these pandemic times, they give us an opportunity to build human connections in the virtual space.
The Human Library Explained
So, just what is a Human Library? The Human Library Organisation (HLO) is a not for profit that was founded in 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Its website (https://humanlibrary.org) explains that HLO has developed “a safe framework for personal conversations that can help to challenge prejudice [and] to help rid discrimination, prevent conflicts and contribute to greater human cohesion across social, religious and ethnic divisions.” A Human Library event offers “a safe space for dialogue where topics are discussed openly between our human books and their readers.” These events have been hosted in more than 80 countries. Here’s how they work:
- Human Books are the speakers whom you invite to your event.
- Readers are the participants who attend the event to learn from the Books.
- Checkouts are one-on-one conversations between a Reader and the Book he or she chooses.
Costs can be extremely minimal, depending on the type of event you choose to have. The concept is scalable to any size library system and can be useful in many situations, whether you’re celebrating a milestone for your organization or digging into some challenging issues. Think of the potential of a Human Library to support key objectives you may be already building into your marketing plans, such as inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
Given my relatively short time at Brampton Library, I’m especially grateful to the team of four coordinators who developed and marketed the first four Human Library events, especially Sarala Uttangi and Surita Dey. They have decades of experience working here, and they have contributed greatly to the content of this article. So I’ll begin with information they’ve provided about the first four face-to-face events that took place before I joined the staff. My colleagues explained to me how the early events were promoted, who participated, and why they were successful.
Staging and Promoting Four Events
Back in 2008, Brampton joined other library systems in Ontario to build a three-way partnership with a federal department (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) and a local agency (in our case, the Brampton Multicultural Community Centre) to form the Library Settlement Partnerships (LSP) program. Settlement workers in the library provide a seamless introduction for and ongoing support to vast numbers of newcomers in their new cities.
This has been a game changer. Newcomers arriving in Brampton are encouraged to make the library their first stop, and many sign up for library cards on the spot. Settlement workers in our branches extend our service offering, meeting with newcomers in a comfortable setting and connecting them with the essential services that support them in their new Canadian home.
One year after the partnership was announced, we decided to schedule an annual Library Settlement Partnerships Day during Ontario Public Library Week. Just 2 years later, in 2011, Uttangi brought the concept of the Human Library to the planning table and began to prepare for Brampton Library’s first interpretation in collaboration with colleagues Dey and Catherine Carreiro.
The First Human Library in Brampton
Offering our LSP service, participating in Ontario Public Library Week, and planning a newcomer-focused program on a large scale were all factors in determining that Brampton Library would hold its first Human Library event. It would be on Oct. 19, 2011, at our largest and busiest branch, Chinguacousy, located in the Brampton Civic Centre. A theater and various community organizations with whom we partner, including the Brampton Multicultural Community Centre, are also located there.
In the early days, staffers used marketing tactics such as issuing press releases and following up with local and Greater Toronto Area media outlets, sharing fliers, putting up posters, spreading the word to community partners and asking them to share it with their networks, and motivating all staffers to talk up the event with our customers at every opportunity. There were no promotional costs—word-of-mouth messaging and earned media coverage are free.
In choosing the Human Books for that first event, my experienced colleagues selected experts in consultation with our LSP partner, the Brampton Multicultural Community Centre, to remain true to our theme of supporting newcomers’ settlement success. We offered the chance for the Readers to check out the Human Books for 15-minute, one-on-one conversations.
In all, 16 Books joined this first event, including librarians from Korea and India, a multicultural journalist, a retired teacher and Brampton Library volunteer, a conservationist, a chef, an entrepreneur, an advocate for people with disabilities, a lifeguard, and a retired nurse. As previous newcomers themselves, these Books had a range of experiences to share with their Readers.
During the 3-hour event, the 16 Books interacted with 110 Readers during numerous one-on-one loans and in small-group sessions. The event cost was just under $200 for refreshments. Afterward, surveys indicated that respondents would be interested in future conversations with tradespeople; those with experience in immigration, settlement, and career-building; and licensed professionals, including engineers, teachers, and healthcare paraprofessionals.
More Human Libraries Engage More Partners
In 2013, Brampton Library hosted two Human Libraries. On March 28, the theme was healthy living, especially the prevention and maintenance of diabetes, in partnership with the Brampton Multicultural Community Centre and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. There were four Human Books—the health promotion manager of the Canadian Association of Multicultural People, the CEO and clinical director of South Asian Community Health Services, a nutritionist with an M.B.A. specializing in healthcare services, and the senior trainer of a fitness club. Marketing strategies included issuing a media advisory and following up with journalists, which resulted in coverage in local newspapers, such as the Brampton Guardian and the Hindi Times . Staff members displayed posters in branches and with community partners, and the event was listed in our program guide. A total of 106 Readers attended.
Later in 2013, my colleagues planned to celebrate Library Settlement Partnerships Day during Ontario Public Library Week again. This time, a Human Library event would take place on Oct. 23 at the Mount Pleasant Village branch. The planners began by studying the survey data from the previous events and considering which factors would maximize the potential for this event. That informed numerous changes: We held it in the evening, and we expanded the checkout time from 15 to 20 minutes.
The library partnered with an organization called the Regional Diversity Roundtable, as well as other networks, with the theme Real Lives, Real Stories. Books included three players from a local basketball team, a soccer coach, and a steel-pan musician. Unfortunately, attendance was lower this time, due to the fact that the location was a smaller, newer branch. Just 60 Readers interacted with 11 Books, either one-to-one or in small groups.
Hosting a Human Library here—at a newer branch co-located in a public school that’s near a community area, a skating rink, and a commuter train station—helped us build an audience for future marketing communications in this neighborhood.
For our last Human Library prior to COVID-19, we partnered with a city organization, the Mayor’s Youth Team, for a National Youth Week event on May 7, 2014, at our Cyril Clark branch. We utilized the opportunity to co-promote with marketing colleagues from the city and from Summer Company, a provincial program run by the Brampton Entrepreneur Centre.
Representatives from the Mayor’s Youth Team and our own Teen Library Council also engaged Brampton schools, sharing news about the event during morning announcements, on screens in schools that had them, and on social media. As always, word of mouth was important.
Connecting Again During the Pandemic
While library employees became occupied with other programs and promotions in the ensuing years, the Human Library remained a tried-and-true concept that the community engagement and partnerships team yearned to get back to. Since I arrived in 2015, I was there for the latest iteration.
As of 2021, my marketing team has grown to include a librarian who is responsible for digital strategies, a coordinator, and a part-time designer. We hold quarterly planning meetings, anchored by a spreadsheet of all of the programs and other things our colleagues are working on. It is our job to add recommended marketing channels to the spreadsheets. As we are still in lockdown at the time of this writing, our digital channels remain key, and we rely heavily on social media.
In addition to discussion during the overall Q2 2021 planning meeting, we met with colleagues to discuss a proposal for a virtual Human Library that would focus on career-building. We were able to employ Books that included a manager of health programs, a Brampton artist, a Brampton city councillor/library board member, an assistant branch manager at a local bank, and our own makerspace and digital literacies librarian, Erin Walker. We asked each one to publicize their appearance to their own networks.
We began by creating a fresh visual identity, adding headshots of these Human Books against a solid background in our branded colors. While the previous programs had been promoted largely through print materials, word of mouth, and staffers talking with customers, we now used social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. We also set up registration on Eventbrite.
We prepared an electronic banner for promotional use on our library website, as an email insert, and as an electronic flier. The banner linked viewers to our Eventbrite page, while the email insert and electronic flier gave community partners the tools to share our event with their networks.
We developed simple images to add to our social media posts and a digital tile for the city of Brampton to post on its large LED screen in the downtown core. We envisioned many target audiences—students who want to explore unique career options, adults interested in a career change, newcomers looking to get into the job market, and those who want to explore the challenges of racism, sexism, intercultural stigma, language, and other barriers that our Human Books have faced. To provide context for the event and to reintroduce the concept of the Human Library to our community, one of our librarians wrote a blog post (https://www.bramptonlibrary.ca/index.php/joinin/291-human-library-a-virtual-career-experience).
As with the live events, we kept the promotional costs down by working with community partners, but we do recommend paying the Human Books an honorarium.
Virtual Human Library: A Career Experience was held on April 7, 2021, from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. It opened on Zoom, and the first portion was live streamed to Facebook (www.facebook.com/bramptonlibrary/videos/724938435057119). Six staff members, all shown against individual library-branded backgrounds, and all five Human Books appeared on Facebook to showcase the event. The five Books were introduced and invited in turn to respond to the first question. While registration had been promoted in advance, the Readers could also register on Eventbrite while the Human Library was in progress to enter the Zoom breakout room of their choice at any time. The Human Books circulated through the breakout rooms.
In total, 300 Readers enjoyed our first virtual Human Library. Although our customers aren’t always comfortable with virtual platforms, we deemed the event a success. There was great opportunity to engage with the public while our branches are closed, and the theme was well-suited to our community’s strong focus on academic and career success.
To build your brand, celebrate your customers, and support specific groups at little cost, consider hosting a Human Library. The potential for community engagement on important topics cannot be overestimated.