Friday 18 April 2014

The Living Library

“Everyone has at least one good book in them” so the saying goes. What if books were actually people, sitting right in front of you, telling you their story after you browsed through a list of titles and picked the one that was the most interesting to you? What if, instead of you the reader, constructing the story in your head, you became an active listener, a witness to human experiences and growing empathy, and an asker of questions?

Human Library started out in 2000 in Denmark (as a visitor activity at the annual Roskilde music festival) to challenge attitudes about violence against young people and conflict arising from racism, prejudice and stereotypes. In this library, the books were real human beings with their own personal stories and experiences to share, and could be ‘borrowed’ by curious readers who may have otherwise never had a dialogue with people from diverse backgrounds in their own community.

Fast forward over a decade later, and the Human Library now has gone global with an aim to “create more social cohesion and respect for diversity and human rights” by supporting people to organise and create their own Living Libraries around the world. Popular and universal titles include stories told by refugees and immigrants, people with unusual occupations, people of different religions, what it’s like living with a serious medical condition.
I took part in a Living Library activity in London a few years ago, when the academic library I worked for had its annual staff development day. I was terribly shy and utterly stumped,  besides, I was far more interested in borrowing the human books! It is an odd thing, to objectively pull back and look at yourself, the sum of your life and experiences, and try to pick an angle, a plot, a single thread, that others might find interesting enough to listen to for the fifteen minutes or so that they borrow you for.

In the end, I think the title of my ‘book’ was something about a “Greek Kangaroo”, and my blurb focused on what it was like growing up with two very different cultures, feeling like you belong to both and neither at the same time, then taking that all of that and moving to the other side of the world, to add another layer of confusion and self-identity to the mix. Fun stuff. Talk about ‘judging a book by its cover’.

In NSW, I found a handful of out-of-date websites from several years ago, and some one-off mentions (including this mini-mentorship library at a past Emerging Writers’ Festival). Only one regularly organised occurrence of a Living Library seems to be happening; at Lismore library, on the first Friday of every month. Where are all our living libraries? 

I’m curious, has your local library ever put on a Living Library event? Would you consider it for your own library? Do you have your own experience of borrowing or even being a book?  What stories would you be interested in hearing?

Australia is overflowing with stories from the fascinating and diverse people that live here. It’s a great opportunity for people to sit down and actually meet someone who they may have only heard about as an abstract idea or label, or on the news, or a statistic. One story can change the way you see everything.

-Maria Savvidis @m_savvidis
Social Media Officer, ALIA Sydney

Read on, humans:

The Living Library Organiser’s Guide (PDF)

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