College hosts internationally recognized Human Library Project

Community members engage with human “books” to “read” about the wealth of personal stories in Paresky last weekend at the Human Library.  (Photo courtesy of iBerkshires)
Community members engage with human “books” to “read” about the wealth of personal stories in Paresky last weekend at the Human Library. (Photo courtesy of iBerkshires)

On Friday and Saturday, the College hosted the third annual Human Library Project in the Paresky Student Center. From 1-4 p.m., students, faculty, staff and community members “checked out” human “books” from a “library” of 60 titles.

Although an international phenomenon since 2000, the Human Library first came to the College in 2012 with support from the Gaudino Fund. The fund, named for late Professor Robert L. Gaudino, aims to support “experiential education, rigorous scholarship and a respect for the different perspectives people bring to a question or problem,” according to the College’s website.

The international project was originally started as a movement against anti-immigrant behavior in Denmark, however, according to Magnus Bernhardsson, associate professor of history and the current Gaudino scholar, “We thought we could use this concept on this campus to address other issues. There are very interesting people here in our community with interesting experiences that we don’t necessarily know exist, or can’t access them.”

In addition, Bernhardsson explained that other goals of the project include broadening the traditional definition of a book, providing an opportunity for the community to engage in uncomfortable conversations and opening up the campus to students and community members who might normally see the College as an “insurmountable place.”

Nina Pande ’17, who attended the Saturday session, believed the event served its purpose: “The conversations were a little uncomfortable at times. I think everyone there knew what we were getting into and approached the discussions with an appropriate level of open-mindedness and respect. But I think the uncomfortable questions were also the ones we benefited from the most because they reflected where the biggest gaps in understanding were.”

The College’s Human Library was the first in the state of Massachusetts. Since then, various other colleges have started their own Human Libraries. Last year, several colleges sent delegations to the College’s event to learn how the event was structured and executed. “We think this is a model that could serve any college campus or a municipal campus,” Bernhardsson said.

Since the event’s inception, the number of participants has grown, with many of the same participants returning each year. Bernhardsson highlighted one change the project made this year: instead of giving one title to each person, the committee decided to assign more than one title to a person because “we are not just one thing. There are different sides to people.”

In addition, members of the College’s library staff were on the planning committee for the event this year. Bernhardsson noted the library staff was especially interested in “expanding peoples notions of what a library could be” because of the move to the new library in August 2014.

According to Bernhardsson, this year approximately 25 percent of “books” were faculty, 25 percent were students, 25 percent were staff and 25 percent were outside community members. He explained this year that it was easier to find people to volunteer as “books” because the event has become better known in the community.

Pande “checked out” participants with the titles “Firewalker,” “Fat Woman,” “Mobile Games and Social Change,” “Williams Admission Dean” and “Married College Student.” “It was kind of like Storytime in that people were sharing things that were personal and important to them, but the one-on-one aspect was really nice because it was much more interactive,” Pande said.

Caroline Kaufman ’15 started participating in the project last year with the title “Third Generation Legacy.” She explained that the committee was looking for someone in that category and she volunteered to help.

Kaufman explained that she really enjoyed her experience with the event. “The best part was talking to the other ‘books’ and hearing about their experiences. It was really interesting,” she said.

“It is fun for me to see Paresky filled with people of all ages having intimate and sometimes intense dialogue with each other and that is a beautiful thing to see,” Bernhardsson said.