Human Library allows living ‘books’ to tell their stories

Teresa Totten, programing and services coordinator for the DeKalb County Library

Teresa Totten, programing and services coordinator for the DeKalb County Library

Communities are made up of people, each of whom has a story. They may be refugees, homeless persons, single parents, transgender persons, same-sex spouses, Christians, Muslims. Some may make assumptions about these community members based on such labels. Would those assumptions hold up if their neighbors learned firsthand more about their lives? 

That question is at the heart of an international program started in Denmark in 2000 that this month comes to DeKalb County. The Human Library Project—described on its website as a worldwide movement for social change—asks people from a wide variety of backgrounds to be human “books” that others can learn from. The DeKalb County Library is now an official partner of the international organization, which holds events not only at libraries, but also at churches, community centers, schools and other places. 

“The Human Library Project will provide a safe space for you to ‘check out’ a ‘living book’ and engage in conversations that explore the stereotypes and prejudices that separate us, as well as the similarities that connect us,” explains an announcement from the DeKalb County Library of its first Human Library Event, scheduled for Oct. 23 at the Decatur Library. It is being held in partnership with the Emory University IDEAS Program and the DeKalb Library Foundation.

“The format is similar to a normal library experience in which a card holder chooses a book and checks it out. Instead of taking a paper book, however, the person spends time with a flesh-and-blood person who can tell his or her story and answer questions from the ‘reader,’” said Teresa Totten, programing and services coordinator for the DeKalb County Library.

The concept ties to the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” People are urged to put aside their preconceptions about those who look different, have a different history, practice a different faith or live a different lifestyle from those they normally associate with.

 The Oct. 23 event will last approximately two-and-a-half hours with each check-out lasting approximately 20 minutes; eight to 10 “human books” will be available.  

“We specifically wanted to include a refugee not only because we have many refugees here in DeKalb County, but because so much is being said among politicians, in the media and elsewhere about refugees and how they impact our community,” Totten said.

The project was started to prevent violence aimed at people because of such factors as race, religion or sexual orientation, Totten explained. “The feedback around the world has been great. People walk away saying ‘I never thought about it that way’ or ‘This really changed how I view that particular group of people.’ Both ‘books’ and ‘readers’ say they are glad they participated.”

The initial books for the DeKalb event were chosen to reflect the county’s diversity. “As part of our community engagement, we try to promote understanding within our multicultural community. Normally, we do this by offering books and other media materials that reflect a broad range of perspectives and by sponsoring programs that encourage people to learn about people different from themselves,” Totten said.

“We selected from among people we know or people who were recommended to us,” she continued. “Everyone we asked was eager to be part of the project and many of them had suggestions as to other people we might include.” 

Totten said the library plans to offer the program at least once a year—and she hopes more often. “There are so many aspects of the human experience that we can offer—an ex-gang member, recovering drug addict, a person living with HIV-AIDS, a police officer.” 

While a person may identify in more than one way, the “book” chooses the aspect of his or her life that will be explored. A brief bio tells the potential reader what to expect. “It’s a little like a book cover that tells the person considering the book what it’s about,” Totten said.  

The Oct. 23 event is 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. in the lower level of the Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. Sessions between “book” and the “reader” are private. For more information, call (404) 370-3070.

 

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