The Human Library, established twenty years ago in Denmark, allows people volunteering as ‘books’ to interact with ‘readers’ who have half an hour conversations with them.
The Human Library Organisation is an international not-for-profit outfit that was established in the spring of 2000, celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. It helps organise events where people are the books, and where readers can ask questions and interact with ‘books’ for half an hour at a time. The aim is to have open communication and to combat prejudice.
The Human Library – Menneskebiblioteket in Danish – “was created in Copenhagen … by Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen.” It features books who are people out of the ordinary: they could be part of a minority, a different ethnicity, a person with a genetic or psychological disorder, sexual orientation, and more.
According to the Human Library website, the first-ever event was open eight hours a day for four days straight, and featured more than 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.”
The website best explains the Human Library concept as “a library of people. We host events where readers can borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to,” adding that “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.”
The Human Library’s story begins as a project in 2000 at a local music festival. As described in an essay by Lene Rimestad, “participants were invited to borrow a person as an open book. More than 50 different people were published, among others a [Muslim], a journalist, fans of rival football clubs Brondby and FC Copenhagen, a policeman, a parking officer and Bente, a woman from Freetown Christiana [then viewed as a ‘bad’ neighhbourhood] in Copenhagen.”
The article quotes founder Ronni Abergel as saying: “All people judge and so we are not here to change your mind or to tell you not to judge. We are here to make information available to you in a safe setting. So you can make your own decisions, but hopefully better informed decisions.” Abergel goes on to say: “Based not on a quick judgement, but after more careful consideration and after meeting someone that knows about it. Gives you a chance to unjudge someone.”
While the Human Library can be hosted in any welcoming space, it has opened its first permanent book depot in Copenhagen. The building and the surrounding reading garden allows books, librarians and readers to meet and discuss in a safe space. As for the Reading Garden, it is open to visitors on select weekdays and weekends. The essay says it serves “as a permanent space to have a conversation about diversity.” The garden was opened with a ceremony on June 26 and contains lots of hardbacks, e-books, and international editions.
As with many other institutions, the global coronavirus pandemic has had its effect. It currently holds Facebook Live readings and virtual Readers Corner events. Instead of one-to-one conversations with a book, readers in larger groups can now connect online.
A similar concept is at work with the Living Library, a Council of Europe initiative that began in 2003 inspired by the same music festival in Denmark. 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.”
According to the Council of Europe, the Living Library became part of its programme in 2003 “and the driving force behind its inclusion was the realisation that human rights cannot be defended and promoted by legal texts alone.”
“There is – today more than ever in the recent past – a need to raise awareness of the wider public of the importance of human rights to the fabric of our democracies and the responsibility of the individual citizen in realising abstract human rights in his or her everyday interactions,” continues the Council of Europe.
The Living Library has also had sessions in Turkey. In a 2010 article, organiser Meri Izrail discusses who the ‘books’ may be: “OK we have different book titles available: we have gays; we have Greeks [‘Rum’ in Turkish]; we will have schizophrenics; bisexual; visually impaired; Arab; NGO worker; headscarf wearing women; transsexual; Armenian; Kurdish; and, Alevi.”
Izrail is realistic about what the Living Library can accomplish: “Most people would like to present the project as a project that will actually erase prejudices,” she tells the reporter. “Of course it is not possible to erase prejudices in half an hour. But I think it is a very good sign if we can bring back readers. There were some readers who were, for example, at a book fair who are coming back to this Living Library with their friends. So this is the sign of achievement on our side.”