Exploring stories through The Human Library

Winnipeg Library shifts catalogue from paper to person

“I learned about privilege and how important it is to speak up about poverty and discrimination,” reads an anonymous feedback received by the Winnipeg Public Library (WPL) Human Library event.

The Human Library is an international movement for social change. According to The Human Library's website, the organization is designed to promote a positive avenue to challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.

“They (The Human Library) own the concept and the name of the project, but anyone can start one of their own,” Kathleen Williams, the administrative coordinator for community outreach at the WPL, says.

WPL held their third Human Library on Sept. 21-23. The first two were held in 2011 and others in 2013.

One of the goals of The Human Library is to bring together people who may have otherwise never interacted.

“The concept is to bring people together and having conversations between the ‘books’ and readers,” Williams says. “The benefit is on both sides.”

The idea of a human book has a certain intrigue to it. When an author is published, it may become natural for readers to want to meet and learn more about the author. In that sense, a published author or public figure as a human book is easy to grasp. A regular Joe, on the other hand, may be less so.

According to Williams, The Human Library generates a broad title for their Human books such as ‘Homeless’ or ‘Young Single Mother.’

With these broad often easily relatable titles, or even curious titles, readers could potentially be lured to ‘check out’ a book. One concern is the potential that one ‘book’ may be seen as an emblem for a group. Readers might buy into the stereotype that the experiences of one individual represents an entire population in Winnipeg.

To avoid this interpretation, the WPL follows a slightly different approach in titling their ‘books.’

“We work with the books to come up with their titles and a description,” Williams says.

Rather than generating broad generalized titles like the International Human Library, WPL allows the ‘books’ to participate in naming their stories.

Williams explains that there is a broad diversity of people with various experiences.

“People have many layers,” she says, noting that they are not just “an immigrant man” or “a drag queen.” There is a lot more to them, Williams says. The descriptions of the ‘books’ might help to make that clear.

The human books are an opportunity to meet and connect with people who may be so different from the readers. They offer a chance to step out of one's cocoon. It is an opportunity to look into the life of another person.

“Putting yourself into the shoes of another person opens a world of empathy and awareness about issues they’ve never had to deal with,” Williams says.

The Human Library then humanizes individuals who may otherwise not be understood. It gives readers a chance to listen to the voices of people with unique experiences, and those whose voices may have been silenced at one point in time.

The safety of the human books is a concern. The readers who ‘check out’ these books are complete strangers. Sure, they have library cards, but they are still unknown to the ‘books’ in question.

How is the library able to maintain confidentiality and ensure safety for these ‘books’ who open up on sometimes very sensitive life experiences?

“There are rules in place to create a safe and welcoming environment,” Williams says. “The books have every right not to answer a question or to redirect if they are not comfortable.”

Williams says the library aims to foster “respectful conversations between the books and readers.”

Williams explains that in the three years that the Human Library project has run in Winnipeg, there have only been two incidences where a book decided to end the conversation.

Published in Volume 72, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 19, 2017)

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