On a Sunday afternoon, dozens of people travel to the local arts centre in Norwich to borrow books for around 30 minutes at a time. An incredibly brief description of each story is stuck on a board for readers to choose from. ‘Bisexual’ says one, ‘transgender’ another, ‘partner of an alcoholic,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘disabled’.
But despite following the library format most people are accustomed to, this event isn’t what it seems. Each ‘book’ is a person ready to discuss with a ‘reader’ an aspect of their life.
These events are held by The Human Library, a non-profit organisation founded by Danish journalist and activist Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany. “I started the Human Library as a social experiment,” Ronni says.
In 2000, while working for a local NGO group in Denmark, Stop The Violence, Ronni and his associates were invited to Roskilde, a music festival in the country, to “contribute with something different,” he says.
Ronni wanted to see whether they could create a space where people felt willing to have unfettered conversations with strangers on uncomfortable matters they would typically not have a chance to discuss. “The library is what we created to present there for the first time. What made me build [on this] was the incredible impact I saw we had on all the folks involved.” The organisation has since held events in over 80 countries across the world.
Today, Ronni says that the heart of the Human Library is to offer people the opportunity to ‘unjudge,’ a term that has become increasingly more popular among the organisation’s community. “We all have biases and negative prejudices, but not everyone has the opportunity to find out or explore what they believe about other people,” Ronni says.
Part of the use of ‘unjudge’ comes from a move away from the common phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ explains Head of Methodology Katy Jon Went. “The ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ idea puts the emphasis upon the reader being told not to judge and the book being seen as this more saintly experience,” they say. Katy believes ‘unjudge’ is more neutral and highlights that preconceptions can go both ways – the book could also be the person making assumptions about the reader.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Human Library is that readers are encouraged to ask questions and voice their opinions or biases. On one memorable occasion, a person identified themself as ‘gender critical,’ says Katy, who is transgender and often takes part in events as a book.
‘Gender critical’ refers to the belief that a person’s sex is biological and unchangeable, and both distinct from and generally of greater importance than their gender or gender identity.
“‘I’m one of those people who don’t agree with trans, and I’m sceptical of you and your choices,’” Katy says the person said to them at the time, offering them the chance not to go ahead with the reading. “I said, ‘I’d love to understand you as much as I would love for you to understand me,’” Katy adds, noting that anyone taking part in the Human Library can stop a reading without being questioned about it.
“She wasn’t being offensive, but she certainly set out her stance from the outset, putting a label on herself that most trans people would say, ‘right, I’m off’ to.”
Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask
Katy joined The Human Library as a book in 2009 after attending an event, becoming a more permanent staff member at the end of 2017. But, how people come to be books is multifaceted. Some are asked, some apply online, and others, like Katy, attend as a reader and later put themselves forward.
“I decided to become a book because I saw how much pleasure my partner got from being one,” says Marie, a 67-year-old teacher who offers books under subjects which include ‘partner of a trans person,’ ‘depressed’, and ‘fat’. “I felt a huge freedom because I found I was able to speak without judgement about a topic that could be controversial,” she says.
On the other hand, 29-year-old Megan from Norfolk found The Human Library online and researched the organisation. “I watched a Ted Talk by the founder Ronni, which confirmed to me that this was something that I would be honoured to be a part of,” she says.
Megan was diagnosed with an incurable form of eye cancer, which has now become terminal. In her daily life, she has found that people treat her differently after learning about her diagnosis. “It felt as though in the eyes of society, I had lost my identity as a young woman and have now become somebody to pity.”
She notes that her first experience as a book was with a person who wanted to learn how to be a good friend to the people in their life with cancer, which also allowed Megan to understand cancer’s impact from a friend’s perspective. “It was incredibly rewarding to connect with another human being on such a deep level in such a short time.”
Diversity and inclusion practitioner Shannon, 34, offers books on race, racism, bisexuality, PTSD, and single motherhood. She agrees it’s a positive experience for both parties involved. “The thing that has been the most surprising for me is the amount of people out there who just want to learn,” she says. “They want to be able to ask the questions that they ‘shouldn’t’, And I think I set up the space for them to feel comfortable to ask them.”
As the books are borrowed unseen with just the prompts as a guide, it is also not uncommon for people to conjure up an idea in their heads about who they believe they will be meeting. “Then you encounter the person who quite often is not what you expected,” Katy explains, adding that often people assume a ‘disabled’ book will be a person in a wheelchair.
“Instead out walks a person whose disability is invisible, who may also be a person of colour and trans,” they say. Situations like this often allow for an even more insightful conversation about image and identity.
Members of The Human Library truly believe that providing people with the opportunity to properly learn about how a person navigates life emotionally and physically is a profound educational experience that will stay with that person.
“You may learn that the person covered in tattoos is not always ‘unapproachable’, the hooded teenager is not always ‘irresponsible’, and the person with cancer is not always ‘fragile’,” Megan says, adding that she believes discussions such as the one at The Human Library allow for more ‘meaningful and fruitful’ encounters in life.
“At the end of the day, I think any time we are making space for people to be curious is a good thing,” Shannon adds.
You can find details of the Human Library’s regular worldwide events here.