This past January the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County in upstate New York hosted an installment of the Human Library, adding to its existing collection fourteen “human books,” as they’re called—members of the local community with uncommon stories to share, “on loan” for the public to listen. The human books met with more than a hundred visitors, each of whom had signed up to listen to the storytellers in thirty-minute intervals. Some of the human books wore T-shirts that declared, “Human Library: Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Their stories ran the gamut from inspirational guides to travel narratives to profiles, but all were unequivocally their own.
Founded in 2000 in Denmark, the Human Library (www.humanlibrary.org) brings together people from disparate backgrounds in order to dispel stereotypes and prejudices, and encourage dialogue and understanding through storytelling. The initiative was conceived by an organization called Stop the Violence, established by five friends in Copenhagen in 1993 after a mutual friend was stabbed at a nightclub. Cofounders Dany Abergel, Ronni Abergel, Thomas Bertelsen, Christoffer Erichsen, and Asma Mouna organized workshops for young people throughout the country, at which community members were encouraged to get involved and speak to participants. Seven years later, when the group staged the first Human Library event at Roskilde’s annual music festival, they had a network of more than thirty thousand across Denmark from which to draw.
Today the Human Library has spread worldwide, operating on six continents and in hundreds of cities, suburbs, and small towns—even in online communities—with a growing number of participants in the United States. “We are making an effort to push further into the U.S.,” Ronni Abergel says. “It’s coming along nicely.”
The model is simple: A local library, school, community organization, or festival decides to host an event, and the Human Library provides support in the form of title suggestions, training manuals for the human books, and guidelines for readers. After successfully carrying out an event, the organizer becomes a resource for others who want to do the same. The result is culturally specific and, at its best, addresses rifts between groups in the communities involved. In Voronezh, Russia, one organizer was attacked by a right-wing nationalist who stormed an event with pepper spray and explosives. As soon as the man was subdued by police and taken away, the conversations carried on. “There was no way we would discontinue the event,” the organizer, Olga Bazueva, was quoted as saying in a press release. “The attack only underlined that there is a great need in my country for events like the Human Library.”
Because different organizers recognize different needs in their respective communities, each installment of the Human Library is unique. Rebecca Fuss, the director of programming and outreach at the Friends and Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, organized January’s event after first learning about the Human Library last year, when the University of Rochester hosted an installment at its annual Fringe Festival. Fuss made sure her human books were not only good storytellers, but that as a group they were representative of the city as a whole. “We went looking for marginalized stories, stories that could only be told in Rochester.” Colleagues, friends, and library patrons came to Fuss with suggestions—classmates, teachers, friends, and neighbors with interesting backgrounds and experiences. Rather than use titles suggested by the Human Library, Fuss invited her books to choose their own titles. “This book knows the face of hunger and poverty in urban and rural settings in our area,” read the description for a participant who titled himself African American Community Activist. Other titles included You Can’t Shave in a Minimart Bathroom and The Butler Did It.
“Our human books have many different chapters and we wanted their titles to reflect that,” Fuss says. This was especially important, she adds, because Rochester is still a divided city. “This isn’t Denmark. We are a diverse community, but segregated. That’s Rochester. People go their whole lives here without having a meaningful conversation with someone outside of their community.” To Fuss, the program was perfectly suited to a public library active in its community. “Conversations that occur at the Human Library are so important in order for us to understand and accept one another,” she says. “Libraries are a trusted, safe space for these deep exchanges to happen.”
For participants, the discussion is a welcome challenge. David Dornford, who has gone by the title Vietnam Veteran at two Human Library events in Rochester, says he wishes more readers would argue with him. “I don’t want someone to read the synopsis of my story and say, ‘This one looks like someone I can relate to because I feel the same way,’” he says. An air force pilot during the Vietnam War, Dornford was court-martialed after refusing an order to fly a B-52 bomber. “People at the Human Library [events] sometimes try to call me a conscientious objector, but I tell them it was a purely personal decision. It is political for me now, but at the time, it was personal. I was thinking about my life, my decisions, and the Vietnamese people for whom I had developed a deep affection.” Dornford says he emphasizes the personal aspect of his story to keep readers from inferring generalizations based on his experience.
Fuss calls Dornford one of her “best-sellers.” His openness is what makes his story compelling, and what ultimately helps the Human Library continue to grow. “People from many other libraries came to our Human Library to check out how it’s done,” Fuss says. “We are considering working together to hold a one-day, multisite model used previously in Ottawa, Toronto, and other cities, with a possible date in the fall.”
Human Library events are scheduled in several locations across the United States this month, including Columbia College Chicago on May 16, with additional events planned throughout the year. For human books like Dornford, this is happy news. “I would do it every week if I could,” he says.
Amanda Calderon is a poet in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry and the Kenyon Review.