The Human Library

When you think of a library, usually books come to mind. Rows and shelves filled with pages upon pages of words. What isn’t so frequently associated with library content is humans as books. As in walking in, checking out a human, and reading or hearing their story. Imagine the beneficial destruction of stereotypes and mutual understanding between people which could result from this. Most things like xenophobia, bigotry, racism, and the social issues arising from these could be lessened if people were able and willing to openly communicate and ask questions of one another. About 20 years ago, this idea was imagined, pursued, and brought to life as the humanlibrary.

It’s a revolutionary idea, and according to their website “The Human Library…was developed in Copenhagen in the spring of 2000 as a project for Roskilde Festival by Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen.

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 they did. More than a thousand readers took advantage leaving books, librarians, organizers and readers stunned at the impact of the Human Library.” From there the idea developed into a non-profit platform used worldwide by several corporations.

They estimate that approximately 80 countries have had events hosted by organizers for the Human Library. An article on Upworthy gave the organization even more popularity as it states, “In our quick-to-judge, increasingly polarized world, it’s no wonder these events are growing in size. We need them.”

Some of the main organizations which regularly use the Human Library are Daimler, Heineken, eBay, Microsoft, and Eli Lilly. Public and academic libraries have also sought to use the idea and host events as well. The Brooklyn Public Library is one such institution. In 2019 they wanted to host an event with volunteers from the community serving as “books”. Their  proposition stated “At each event, participants or “readers” will have the opportunity to “read” a book in 20-30 minute one-on-one or small group conversations. Librarians and volunteers will monitor the conversations, ensuring a safe space.” It went on to assure that controls would be in place to assure age-appropriate conversations. Such as “events will be open to adults and children 6 and older. Children under the age of 16 must be accompanied by a guardian. A carefully selected set of “books” will be chosen for children.”

Texas A&M University libraries have hosted 6 annual unofficial Human Library events. Its hosted on zoom, and their site stated, “This year our event has been expanded and in addition to our signature event, there will also be a Book Club Event presented in a group setting – attendees will listen to a Book and after hearing their story, will be able to engage in a meaningful exchange through questions and shared dialogue.” This format may work well to address the demand for a particular “book” so that more can learn and interact simultaneously.

The Redwood City Public Library posted pictures of some of their volunteers on their  website. Their first event was in 2018, and featured several diverse “books”. Gateway Community College also hosted an event in 2019, allowing up to 5 readers per “book” in 45 minute sessions.

In July 2020 Forbes published an article about this as well stating, “Diversity and inclusion efforts struggle because they often attempt to find a one-size-fits-all solution to eliminating bias. The truth is, there is no effective one-size-fits-all solution because we all come with different backstories and different views of the world. The Human Library is making an impact, because their approach is tailored to each individual’s own biases and prejudices.

They’re tackling diversity and inclusion one person at a time.” This has also been the case for Human Libraries in India. An article in ED Times Youth Blog states, “The concept is still new in India, even though metros like Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai organized a few events on this in the last couple of years. In a country as diverse as India, empathy and understanding are indispensable to weave a strong social fabric.” This is not only true in India, but in every other country as well.

This organization has taken on a huge project of helping humans empathize with one another. It’s not always easy to open one’s mind and try to understand where someone else is coming from, but at least with this initiative it’s more accessible.

By Gretchen Hendrick Gardella, MLIS

Gretchen Hendrick Gardella is a Librarian with administrative, research, and vast technical skills. Ms. Gardella brings over 16 years of experience working in academic and public libraries to the discussion.