By: Peggy Lewis—
Muncie, IN—What is a Human Library? Like all libraries, this one is filled with books. The difference in this library is that all of the books are humans with lived experiences and compelling stories. At a Human Library event, books and readers come together at a specific time and place to engage in dialogue.
Books are people we see in our everyday lives but may never otherwise have the opportunity to meet. At library events, readers borrow people who volunteer as open books to discuss their topics. The goal of each event is to confront stereotypes and build community. In this format, a book and a reader spend about a half hour together sharing information, asking and answering questions, and increasing understanding. Every human book on our bookshelf represents a group in our society that is often subjected to such things as stereotyping, prejudice, stigmatization, or discrimination because of their lifestyle, a diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, or ethnic origin.
Ronni Abergel, founder of the Human Library, calls a library event “living literature.” Each reading is a personal and specific experience. Because of dialogue and questions as opposed to storytelling, a reading is designed to build understanding, expand acceptance, and celebrate differences. This international organization started nearly 20 years ago in Denmark. Today, there are library events happening daily in over 80 countries.
At a recent library event held at the historic and beautiful Oakhurst Home at Minnetrista, more than 80 readers participated and read more than 30 books available that day. At a library event, tough questions are expected, appreciated, and answered. Books say they reach deep to find appropriate and sincere answers while readers find validation and support in reading the books. The impact is powerful for readers and books alike.
Book topics are determined based on thirteen “Pillars of Prejudice” defined by the Human Library. The pillars include religion/ideology, ethnicity, family relations, gender, sexuality, occupation, social status, abuse and addiction, health, mental health, disabilities, lifestyle, and victims. These pillars represent communities or groups within our society, not unique or isolated topics.
The purpose of the Human Library is not to be a storytelling platform, an attempt to mediate between opposing views, or an opportunity to push one’s own ideological views. It is a forum to build understanding and confront stereotypes. A reader who checked out “Child of Felons” found solace in talking to someone who had similar experiences. Another reader who read “Survivor” found herself voicing things she had never been able to say aloud before. Yet another who checked out “Bi-racial” was able to ask questions to help her in raising her own bi-racial children.
A reader said, “What impacted me at the Human Library was seeing the number of people open to being open, accepting, and vulnerable both as books and as readers.”
Charlize Jamieson who is a “Transgender” book believes that “as a society, we fear what we don’t understand and examples of that fear play out, somewhere and in some form, every single day. It may surface in the form of bullying, cruel jokes or hate speech, or in the extreme worst cases, physical violence, including murder.”
Charlize says that the experience “provided the ability to see each other’s facial expressions and hear one another’s voices, which in turn resulted in authentic face to face connections.” She sees the readers as “wanting to learn more from those who have dealt with or face major life issues.” She sums it up so well saying, “With each reading, we knock out a brick in the wall of ignorance.”
Muncie has enthusiastically embraced the Human Library. The recent Minnetrista event presented one of the largest book catalogs in the United States. We are currently building the book depot, a repository of published books, who will be published throughout Central Indiana and beyond. The possibilities for breaking down prejudices and biases are exciting.