Human library provides forum for storytelling

This weekend, the College hosted the Human Library event, which involved the participation of students, faculty and community members in creating a physical “library” of people whom others could “check out” for a period of time. This was the first event for the global initiative at the College and within Massachusetts. Jointly sponsored by the Gaudino Fund and the College libraries, the event drew approximately 240 readers over the seven hours the library was open. According to Associate Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson, the greatest problem for the event was the limited availability of “books” as a consequence of high attendance and popular demand.

Founded in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000, the Human Library started as an outreach program for a non-governmental youth organization called Stop the Violence as a reaction to the stabbing of a close friend of those involved. The youths in the organization wanted to raise awareness and combat violence, but needed to go about that in a way that would surpass a superficial level. The Human Library, therefore, was a way to encourage dialogue and foster relationships among the visitors at the Roskilde Festival. The event proved highly successful and has now been reprised in nearly 30 countries, including a permanent Human Library in Australia.

The Human Library features a collection of volunteers who agree to serve as “books” to be read by total strangers. The books choose their own titles and descriptions, as well as suggest potential questions for readers as conversation starters. Books in the College catalog included titles as diverse as Hacker, Fat Woman and LDS Missionaries. Khaled Awad ’14 chose to be called Palestinian. “The harder part was choosing the description of Palestinian and giving people conversation starters,” he said. “I’d never really thought about what it is to be a Palestinian, so that was the most challenging part for me.”

The readers sign an agreement not to “damage the books,” with damage in this case meaning putting forth hurtful comments. Readers may peruse the catalog for titles, which are accompanied by books’ corresponding themes and questions. After readers choose a book, volunteer librarians then guide them through the checkout process and direct them to their book. The reader may then converse with the book for the duration of a preset time, at which point the book must then be returned. Organizers of last week’s event estimate that the readers were 35 percent students, 10 percent staff and faculty and 55 percent members of the community.

Readers responded positively to the format because it encouraged immediate openness between book and reader. “I was surprised at how open and honest the Iraq war veteran was in sharing details about his experience in combat,” Laura Berk ’12 said. “He’s clearly been changed by his experience, and he wasn’t hesitant to show that.” While Berk specifically sought a title because its subject related to an issue she was familiar with, other participants chose to discuss subjects that did not often come up in their daily lives. For Hanna Saltzman ’12, Raised In an Orphanage made her focus on an entirely new topic. “He actually had a really positive experience and said it was a really welcoming place … It was interesting for me, because until he started talking I had no idea I had stereotypes about orphanages, but most of what I’d heard was from articles about poor conditions or pop culture images like Annie,” she said.

In addition to reading Palestinian, which focused on subject matter that she had encountered before, Lizzie Kildahl ’14 similarly chose one of the books she read, Transgender, for its unfamiliarity. “I knew almost nothing about transgender individuals, so I wanted to take this chance to learn something new from someone who was willing to talk to me and teach about their experience,” she explained.

The idea for a Human Library at the College originated in a conversation between Bernhardsson and Kashia Pieprzak, associate professor of Francophone literature, French and comparative literature, last spring. Each had heard of the idea independently and agreed it was a good event to host at the College. “We thought this would be a good opportunity for people to learn from others, to raise awareness and to battle prejudice that appears in many forms,” Bernhardsson said. “Williams students do not have many opportunities to speak to people in the community and vice versa. There are lot of very interesting people here living close to campus who have had unusual life experiences.” As the College’s Gaudino scholar, Bernhardsson seeks to promote “uncomfortable learning.” To achieve these goals, the Library featured students, professors and Williamstown residents in its catalog. The pair also reached out to Christine Menard, head of research and references services, and Librarian David Pilachowski, who brought the expertise of the library staff to the effort. Several readers, as well as book volunteers, described the event as “unique” and expressed strong interest in seeing the Human Library return to campus in the future. “I think storytelling is such an important act that people don’t engage in enough because they compartmentalize their experiences,” Berk said.

  • Lindsey Graham

    This sounds like a great event! If possible, we should do it again next year.