three library issues, part 3: the human library

January 26, 2013 was the first Human Library Day, but the Human Library, also known as the Living Library, has been around for several years.

The idea is to assemble a diverse group of people to be "books", then invite an audience to "borrow" the books by engaging them in conversation about themselves. The "book" person talks to the "reader" about her or his life, giving people an opportunity to interact with a greater range of human diversity than they might normally encounter. Human books might be called, for example, activist, musician, lesbian, Muslim, doctor, cancer survivor, wheelchair-user, kindergarten teacher, single parent. It's like a career day, on a broader scale.

Sounds great, right? So why does it give me the creeps?

When I first heard of the Human Library in one of my library courses, the idea made me cringe. It sounded like a jumped-up freak show, or a more socially acceptable version of "some of my best friends are...". It still bothers me and I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's that the Human Library seems to reduce human beings in all their glorious complexity to one piece of self-identification. Maybe it's that one individual cannot represent any identity other than their own unique experience. Maybe it's because I harbour deep skepticism that anyone who needs such exposure will voluntarily participate. Or maybe it's something I haven't yet figured out.

This story in Torontoist says the Human Library "breathes life into an age-old pastime".
But the event isn’t just for satisfying your curiosity about local celebrities; importantly, it’s also about facilitating conversations with other Torontonians whose life experiences are worth sharing: cancer survivors, mental-health experts, entrepreneurs, and a surrogate mother for a gay couple.

The Human Library’s youngest participant is 17-year-old Haille Bailey-Harris, who once struggled with being bullied as the only black student in his small-town school. “I just think the best way to help someone through something is to show that other people have been through it, so that people understand they’re not the only one,” he said.

According to Anne Marie Aikins, the TPL’s community relations manager, the Human Library is a project that started in the early 1990s in Copenhagen, in reaction to a violent gay-bashing incident. “They were started to help people have a broader understanding of differences, to deal with prejudices and stereotypes,” Aikins said. “It’s an alternative way to learn and gain knowledge. Reading a traditional book is one way, downloading an ebook is a modern way, and this hearkens back to the old days when we told stories one-on-one to each other.”

Aikins admits that if someone is staunchly homophobic, chances are slim that they’ll check out a queer-focused human book and have their attitude changed right away. However, for all of the subjects covered in the Human Library collection, she hopes that the attention from the public and the media will help people to hear positive messages about difference.
Promoting positive messages about difference sounds like a worthwhile endeavour. What's your take? Am I the only one cringing?

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