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?


Amy said...

Sounds very weird to me. Not sure I am cringing, but I wouldn't participate as either a book or a reader!

johngoldfine said...

It sounds plenty creepy to me for all the reasons you mention. And--

I don't think it's altogether healthy for the 'books' to see themselves as symbols. It's hard enough to just be and live with yourself sometimes, without having to be the avatar of some abstraction.

Another problem is that a library properly contains all sorts of books with all sorts of viewpoints from right to left, from hateful to transcendent, from cruel to kind. But these books sound like they will tend to be all be cut from the same vaguely-uplifting stock.

laura k said...

I'm pleased to hear two thoughtful readers don't like the idea either!

I don't think the books will necessarily be uplifting. Many people will, I think, talk about struggle and about general experiences. But I agree that there is unlikely to be a wide range of political viewpoints!

Re symbols, that's similar to what I meant here:

Maybe it's that one individual cannot represent any identity other than their own unique experience.

Totally agree with you.

impudent strumpet said...

Two contradictory thoughts:

1. Going and talking to someone in person doesn't seem like the best medium to achieve the goals of this project. Reddit's Ask Me Anything does it better. Everyone can see all the questions and all the answers, so people can learn from the AMA even if they can't think of any good questions to ask. I've looked at previous human library projects and found I had interest in talking to one or two of the people, but I really only had one question for them. Hardly worth putting pants on for!

2. The project would also be more effective if it wasn't a special event, and instead the library could hook you up with someone willing to be interviewed on a specific topic upon request. Imagine if you're a student doing a project, and the library could help set you up with a person with firsthand experience in what you're studying! It would be very difficult logistically, but maybe they could get people to commit to talking to a minimum of one person a month or something.

laura k said...

Thanks, Imp Strump. Many libraries are currently trying to get #2 off the ground! It seems incredibly labour intensive, and for my money, perhaps not the best use of resources. But who knows.

Re #1, the in-person event has the advantage of humanizing, getting past the anonymity of the internet. Then again, the Reddit version may give questioners more freedom to ask more freely.

impudent strumpet said...

The other disadvantage of doing it in person is also what if someone decides to come in for the specific purpose of being mean to the interviewee. I don't know whether or not this would be a large-scale problem, but it was the first thing that occurred to me when I first heard of the project a few years ago. (And bullies have been known to go way more out of their way than seems worth doing to be mean to people.)

laura k said...

I think there's a training and discussions of what to do if things get negative.

Because even people not intending to be bullies may be offended and get nasty. Our friend David, who is a Palestinian solidarity activist, has participated in a human library, and I imagine he was prepared for some ugliness.

I don't think you can do public speaking on any scale without being prepared for some of that. Or you shouldn't, anyway.

impudent strumpet said...

Adding that to the list of "things they should have taught us in school". They "taught" us public speaking by making us do speeches in front of the class. Never actually taught us how to handle an audience, what to do if someone heckles, what to do if things don't go smoothly, what to do if someone asks you a question you can't handle.