A female firefighter who rappels out of helicopters and slogs through swamps to help people in distress. A woman who has provided foster care to over two hundred troubled teens in her lifetime. A young Somali man who escaped his country’s civil war, won a scholarship to a Canadian university, and now helps refugees.
Along with others, the aforementioned have volunteered at Surrey Libraries in British Columbia as part of the Human Library, an international event series in which people function as living books. This innovative library is as straightforward as it sounds: Instead of grabbing a book off the shelf, a patron signs out a person and listens to them tell their life story for a couple of hours. Think audio book with a handshake—or better yet, a hug—at the end.
Twelve years ago, Stop the Violence, a Danish youth-led organization, first brought books to life at a music festival as a way to challenge prejudices. They tapped into a fundamental truth about why we have library cards in the first place: we read to immerse ourselves in other contexts and to see the world from another’s point of view. With eBooks, iPads, and everything in between dominating much of our time today, being able to look into someone’s eyes is refreshing.
The idea caught on, and today forty-five other countries around the globe, from Australia to Romania, have brought living books to their schools, festivals, government offices, corporations, and more. Luckily, the folks who created the first Human Library want nothing more than for people to borrow their idea. They’ve made it easy to do so by creating a guide for organizers in eight different languages, including sample evaluation reports and forms, tips for readers, and other resources, all available on their website (humanlibrary.org).
Drawing from the original model, last year Ravi Basi and her colleagues organized the first-ever Human Library event at Surrey Libraries. To find living books like the firefighter, they gathered recommendations from staff, community agencies, colleges, and nonprofits, in addition to scanning local newspapers. They set stringent criteria: the living book had to have a story to tell, good communication skills, be personable and friendly, and understand the concept and goals of the Human Library. If they made it through the interview process, Basi thanked them for participating by offsetting parking costs, providing lunch and snacks, and giving gift bags.
Volunteers told their stories at an afternoon event, rather than a daylong one, so that Basi could learn the glitches and make improvements for the next time. She also devised a registration system where people could sign up for time slots in advance to ensure they weren’t without readers, and planned ahead by lining up an abundance of living books and spare readers to fill any gaps left by no-shows.
The event was surprisingly successful, exceeding even Basi’s expectations, and Surrey Libraries will now be hosting living books biannually. “Anyone who plans or participates in the Human Library will find it to be a valuable, even profound experience,” she says.
Libraries everywhere have gone through many transformations over the years, and adaptations like the Human Library continue to prove that these institutions aren’t dying, but evolving. Everyone has a tale to tell. By encouraging people of all experiences, ages, and backgrounds to be on loan as living books, we can learn from each other while keeping the timeless and valuable art of storytelling alive.
Celeste Hamilton Dennis