The Human Library: bodies and minds to learn from

We had the idea of the "human library" recommended to us the other day. It's an event, and a network, which treats people as if they were "books" to be accessed, as in a library. The aim is, as the Danish founders say, "to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue." 

At their first event in the Roskilde Festival of Politics, in Denmark, 75 human "books" were made available to the crowds. The founders tell us:

One of the main concerns of the creators inventors was what would happen if people would not get the point? Or if the audience just simply did not want to be challenged on their prejudices? Well given that there was a total of 75 books available, the conclusion was that with so many different people together in a rather small space for a long time, then they are bound to start reading each other if no readers come. 

And so it was to become. Before the first reader could take out a book, the talks where already going on extensively and the feeling of something very special was in the air. The policeman sitting there speaking with the graffiti writer. The politician in discussions with the youth activist and the football fan in a deep chat with the feminist. It was a win-win situation and has been ever since.

This Huffington Post article explains further

So what is The Human Library? Essentially, people volunteer to become ‘books’ and put themselves on loan to ‘readers’, who sit down with them face-to-face and are free to ask anything at all about their lives. So if someone homeless or a refugee offers to become a ‘book’ in the library, a reader can quiz them on what it’s like to be in that situation without the usual social prohibitions applying. One thing you’ll never be told is to mind your own business...

Ronni Abergel [one of the founders] introduces us to The Human Library. “Let me run through the topics available for loan,” he says. “There is cerebral palsy, pansexual, lesbian, East European immigrant, extreme body modifier...” The list goes on, with over a dozen people making themselves available as books. “This transcends social norms. But don’t be shy. These people have volunteered to answer your questions and they are eager to talk about their experiences.”

My first book is Terry, a man in his mid-thirties who used to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. To begin with it’s a little surreal to sit with a total stranger and begin throwing very direct questions at them about their personal life - even for a journalist used to conducting interviews.

But Terry is completely unfazed and answers honestly and comprehensively. I consequently discover that his condition began to manifest itself when he was 19 years old, despite having been a cheerful, sporty guy. He became increasingly paranoid and suspicious of people, believing they could hear his thoughts.

“I was terrified all the time,” he says. But like the overwhelming majority of paranoid schizophrenics, he wasn’t a danger to anyone but himself, and things got so bad that when he was 20 he tried to commit suicide.

“I hope that The Human Library challenges stigma,” he says. “I help other people with schizophrenia now, and you have to understand that the stereotype to do with this condition increases the stigma, and when people with schizophrenia are confronted with this stereotype - that they’re freaks of society - this can have a negative effect on the condition and their sense of being outcasts.”

After chatting for half an hour, I thank Terry and go in search of another book.

There's a context to this - Heineken, the Danish lager giants, who funded the recent "Worlds Apart" video, are promoting a series of Human Libraries over the summer in the UK. Is this a corporate brand doing its bit for social cohesion - or finding ways of seductively extending its commercial reach? A tool of conviviality, or a commodifier of it? And does it matter?