The rise of the human library: How lending people out for conversations is tackling prejudice

by Amanda Cassidy
29th May 2021

There are books, then there are audiobooks, but now the concept of borrowing a human being to talk about a challenging topic is gaining pace. It's called the human library. Amanda Cassidy reports

The Human Library  is, in the true sense of the word, a library of people. Against the backdrop of a rise in curiosity and the thirst for authenticity, the idea of learning and being transported by a person telling their story rather than reading it from a book, is growing in popularity.

The original concept was created in Copenhagen in 2000 by Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany, along with colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen.

According to the founders, it’s a place where readers can borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to.

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“Every human book from our bookshelf, represent a group in our society that is often subjected to prejudice, stigmatisation or discrimination because of their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin, etc” its website explains.

The human “books” in these cases are volunteers. Those with a story to tell. And the way they are dispersed is tailored to each individual’s own biases and prejudices. In other words, they’re tackling diversity and inclusion, one person (“book”), at a time.

The original event was open eight hours a day for four days straight and featured over fifty different titles. The broad selection of books provided readers with ample choice to challenge their stereotypes and so more than a thousand readers took advantage leaving books, librarians, organisers and readers stunned at the reception and impact of the Human Library.

One such volunteer, Bill Carney’s book title is “Black Activist”. He told Forbes magazine his motivation for getting involved. “It’s easy to hate a group of people, but it’s harder to hate an individual, particularly if that person is trying to be friendly and open and accommodating and totally non-threatening”

“I’m not pompous enough to believe that a 25-minute conversation with me is going to change anybody,” he told the publication. “What I am pompous enough to believe is that if I can just instill the slightest bit of cognitive dissonance, then their brain will do the rest for me. And it will at least force them to ask questions.”

The walk-in-someone-else’s-shoes concept also has merit in social science. Such interactions have been proven to decrease prejudice and increasingly open minds.

A similar concept is at work with the Living Library, a Council of Europe initiative that began in 2003 inspired by the Danish concept.

The Council of Europe’s website describes the project as “a tool that seeks to challenge prejudice and discrimination. It works just like a normal library: visitors can browse the catalogue for the available titles, choose the book they want to read, and borrow it for a limited period of time.

After reading, they return the book to the library and, if they want, borrow another. The only difference is that in the Living Library, books are people, and reading consists of a conversation.”

Covid has pushed some of these interactions online. There are now Facebook Live readings and virtual Readers Corner events, where, instead of one-to-one conversations with a book, readers in larger groups can now connect online.


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