Step Inside the Human Library

Step onto any train car in the New York City subway system, and you might be struck by the feeling that you are surrounded by untold stories. A man leans forward, pressing wrinkled hands to his forehead in exhaustion. Two teenagers whisper, tease, and flirt. Tired parents tend to wailing kids. Musicians strum, wail, and rhyme. Each passenger is a fleeting vignette, and stop by stop these stories depart. But what if you had a little more time with each person—and what if it weren’t taboo to ask them about their day, their week, their life in general? Just think how much you might learn.

This is the idea behind The Human Library, an innovative project that began in Denmark in hopes of reducing prejudices, increasing understanding, and creating a safe space to promote dialogue between people who might not normally strike up a conversation. Visitors of the Human Library are invited to check out one of the “books” on loan—the books being people who have volunteered their time to share their stories and experiences. The organizers emphasize that there are no stupid questions, and patrons of the library have up to two hours to spend in conversation with their book. Text from a poster promoting the first Human Library event reads: “Borrow a person you normally would think you would not like. We have a wide selection of unpopular stereotypes. Take a walk, have a talk, or don’t. Just remember to give back the person within two hours.” The organizers are clearly not without a sense of humor, which is part the project’s charm and intrigue.

The first Human Library was organized in 2000 by a group of five young activists called Stop the Violence, after a friend was brutally stabbed in a nightclub. They hoped that by creating the library they could mobilize young people across the country and encourage them to speak out against hate crimes and acts of violence. In just a few years, more than 30,000 people became involved in Denmark, and the project’s success has since spread to 33 other countries. Canada has declared January 26 Human Library Day, establishing pop-up libraries in 15 different cities and encouraging participants to keep the conversation going online using the Twitter hashtag #CBCHumanLibrary, which is how I came across the project.

The concept behind the Human Library has inherent appeal in the realm of social justice—it’s hard to argue with activism that works to combat the senseless hatred between humans that is often born of ignorance. And here at the New York Writers Coalition, we are obvious proponents of the power of each individual’s story. But my inner cynic can’t help but wonder if there is danger in suggesting that one “book” could be representative of an entire group of people, or if it is reasonable for one person to be tasked with demolishing a hateful stereotype that stretches far beyond them as an individual. Of course in the end, it is the responsibility of each library patron to do a close, nuanced read of their chosen “book,” keeping in mind that they are meeting with an individual rather than an entire class of people. Here’s hoping the organizers will bring the Human Library to New York City sometime soon so we can check it out in person.

Have you been to one of the Human Libraries listed on the website? What were your impressions? Tell us in the comments!