The Human Library, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, allows people to volunteer as books’ to interact with ‘readers’ in 30-minute conversations. 

Chit-chat, small talk, surface-level nattering — do you love it or loathe it? Do you often just want to have a one-on-one, real, meaningful and present conversation? One that doesn’t come with expectation, judgement, criticism or distress. To talk to empathise with others, gain understanding of their perspectives and to be social.

I find it refreshingly honest, open and a welcome relief to the fakeness of wearing an “I’m fine” mask that we often don. Arguably, it’s more than that too; it’s necessary.

The Human Library Organisation, an international not-for-profit outfit, answers this call. In 2020, the organisation marks its 20th birthday. Yet, despite launching in 2000, I’d never heard of its incredible concept. 

That is until it randomly cropped up on my Facebook newsfeed after a friend shared the concept of the Human Library.  I immediately gravitated towards it and its sentiment. The idea of the Human Library is to replace books with people. It organises and holds events where people are the books. 

‘Readers’ can ask questions and interact with ‘books’ for 30 minutes at a time. Perhaps even more beautifully, it strives to have open communication and tackle prejudices that we may hold about other people. And it has one very important aim: To challenge people’s perceptions and stereotypes. 

Tackling Stereotypes

The Human Library – Menneskebiblioteket in Danish – was created in Copenhagen by Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany, along with colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen.

Founder Ronni Abergel says the Human Library was first set up to create a space “where you can walk in, borrow a human being and talk to them about a very challenging topic. Ideally, we wanted people to talk about issues that they normally would not talk about, or potentially don’t like to talk about, but that we need to talk about”.

According to the Human Library’s website, the first-ever event was open eight hours a day for four days, with more than fifty different titles. “The broad selection of books provided readers with ample choice to challenge their stereotypes and so more than a thousand readers took advantage leaving books, librarians, organisers and readers stunned at the reception and impact of the Human Library.”

The website best describes the Human Library concept as “a library of people”. It hosts events and invites readers to “borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to”. It adds that “every human book from our bookshelf, represent a group in our society that is often subjected to prejudice, stigmatisation or discrimination because of their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin etc”.

People as books

Starting its life at a local musical festival, the Human Library’s story has been described in an essay by Lene Rimestad. The essay quoted founder Ronni Abergel as saying: “All people judge and so we are not here to change your mind or to tell you not to judge. We are here to make information available to you in a safe setting. So you can make your own decisions, but hopefully better-informed decisions. Ronni continues: “Based not on a quick judgement, but after more careful consideration and after meeting someone that knows about it, gives you a chance to unjudge someone.”

On 26th June 2020, the Human Library opened its first permanent book depot in Copenhagen. The building and the surrounding reading garden encourages books, librarians and readers to meet and talk in a safe space. The area serves “as a permanent space to have a conversation about diversity”. Currently holding Facebook Live readings and virtual Reader Corner events, amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, readers are connecting digitally. 

The Human Library is now present in more than 80 countries. People as books is, at its heart, a humanising experience that asks us to consider the human spirit as a book.

Tailoring each individual’s biases, prejudices and stereotypes, the human books are volunteers. From a rich variety of diverse backgrounds, the volunteers are happy to share their experiences with others.  

As new ‘books’ are continually added to the Human Library, they represent those people who combat stereotypes. And those people who are open to telling their stories to help other people empathise with their life experiences. 

For more information on The Human Library and volunteering, visit Talking is healthy. Sharing is important. Courage is Inspirational.