In 2000, four Danish friends held a four-day event in Copenhagen. Titled The Human Library, the event centered on getting to know people from vastly different walks of life. The friends, long-time professional advocates for social justice, solicited volunteer subjects to act as published “human books.” The volunteers shared their personal stories with event attendees, either one — on — one or in small groups.
Each volunteer held stage with a small, captive audience. They shared reflections on ethnic, professional, and identity prejudice. And, they allowed their “readers” to ask hard questions. The volunteers welcomed hard questions. At the event’s end, thousands of human books and readers had participated, and all gave positive feedback.
In the twenty-one years since the first event, eighty countries — on six continents — have welcomed The Human Library. Universities, high schools, corporations, and public library systems have participated in the Human Library experience. And several permanent, physical Human Library locations have cropped up, including locations in Lismore, Australia and Copenhagen, Denmark.
I first learned of The Human Library through a viral Facebook post. An image showed several rapt, one-on-one conversations taking part in a huge building filled with two-person tables. The post read:
“In Denmark, there are libraries where you can borrow a person instead of a book to listen to their life story for 30 minutes. The goal is to fight against prejudice.”
Goosebumps raised, I felt compelled to dive into research on The Human Library.
A phenomenal concept, I thought. No wonder Denmark is the happiest country on the planet.
Neither the original poster nor I knew while The Human Library began in Denmark, it’s available everywhere from the US to Australia to India to Argentina. When researching the project, I discovered my own public library system had hosted a virtual Human Library week during Colorado’s first COVID shutdown. And every semester, many colleges and universities — including Williams College, Purdue University, and the University of Westminster, London, UK — make the Human Library available to students and the general public alike.
The Human Library was founded in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000. Four social justice advocates and friends: Ronni Abergel, his brother Dany Abergel, Asma Mouna, and Christoffer Erichson, wanted to combat prejudices and racism. They’d worked for the Danish branch of the US group, Stop the Violence, and became exposed to widespread prejudicial views. Brainstorming about new ways to eradicate fear and hatred of different ethnicity, social statuses, and ideologies, the group heavily researched all forms of the contact hypothesis theories.
The contact hypothesis theory was developed in the 1950s by Gordon Allport, PhD. Allport postulated that if people from different walks of life are placed together under equal conditions, prejudices can transform and lessen. Recently, Professor Thomas Pettigrew — Research Professor of Social Psychology at UC-Santa Cruz — has expanded on the theory. While Allport believed certain conditions must be met in order to break down prejudicial walls, Pettigrew believes any level of meaningful contact can help open minds.
Mouna, Erichson, and the Abergel brothers decided to test the theory on their own. The friends called their program The Human Library as reading helps people think outside of their own experiences. And what better way to understand others than to “read” their book?
The initial program lasted for four days and included fifty titles from which readers could choose. The readers would scan the titles and then “check out” human books. Black Militant, Life as a Refugee, Living with AIDS, and Functioning with Schizophrenia are examples of Human Library titles used throughout the years.
A decade after the initial program’s success, the group found corporations like Google reaching out to include The Human Library in corporate Diversity Training Programs. Academia came calling too. The Human Library’s inclusion in school curriculum continues to grow across the globe.
What Does the Program Entail?
On The Human Library website, people can sign up to become a “human book.” The program runs based on a guideline of Pillars of Prejudice. In the early years, the website listed four pillars, which evolved into ten, and now stands at twelve. The pillars include:
· Minority Status
· Mental Health
· Social Status
The human book volunteers have experienced prejudice based on one or more of these areas and base their titles on the subjects they cover. After a short testimonial for readers — typically one individual or a small group — the human book opens themselves up for dialogue. The readers can ask in-depth questions to get a better feel for the book’s experiences. Each “check out” session lasts for thirty minutes.
The praise for The Human Library program is almost universal. However, cautious participants point out a couple of detractions. A Christian Science Monitor article from 2008 pointed out the benefits but noted readers as people who are already “open-minded” — giving the program a “preaching to the choir” feel.
An in-depth study published by the National Institutes of Health concentrated on a mental health group participating in the Human Library. The research noted most mental health human book participants found the experience overwhelmingly positive. Having their voices heard by those willing to increase awareness of mental health issues unburdened volunteers. Often, those struggling with mental health issues feel unheard. However, for participants in a stage of recovery, some had emotional collapses when they felt readers didn’t respond in the way they’d hoped. One participant suggested perhaps psychological screening and training should be a requirement for human books.
Positive Steps in the Right Direction
“The Human Library focuses on interaction, and there are few restrictions on the dialogue, allowing more creativity.”
The Human Library allows people to interact who would never have had the chance. Even the most open-minded among us hold erroneous preconceived notions and prejudices. This unique program allows for thirty-minute sessions with human books, allowing them to give voice to their struggles and experiences.
It’s far harder to hate individuals than it is to hate a whole group. Readers dialogue with the books in ways that enable them to broaden their views. Understanding another’s perspective may help to chip away at the fear held for those who are “different.”
I wonder, if physical human libraries became staples of all global cities, would unity and equality seem more tangible? Reading satisfies my soul — I’ve learned much from books. Broadening the definition of books to include humans piques my curiosity. I’d love the opportunity to pop into a local human library, dialogue with several human books, and go home with a deeper understanding of others’ experiences.