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Imagining a human library

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Imagine that we had never met before, but I walked up to you in Sharples and introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Gilbert! I’ve lived through devastating hurricanes and floods, and spent a large part of my childhood translating court documents into Spanish for my mother so she could understand them, even though I could barely understand them myself! What are some of your formative experiences?”

That would be pretty weird, right? Even at a place as open-minded as Swarthmore, you can’t just approach strangers and start speaking about deeply personal matters, even if they would want to. That is, until this year. Zackary Lash, Jacky Ye, and myself came across an article describing a “Human Library” at Williams. We all thought it was an incredible concept. You could sign up to share any experience you wanted, and people who were interested in your experience would provide a curious audience. With the depth and diversity of stories among the Swarthmore community, the possibilities would be endless. To develop this idea here, we met with members of the president’s office to discuss logistics and funding, members of the Title IX team to discuss confidentiality, consent, and trauma, and members of the faculty to discuss dialogue and censorship. After a rigorous process, we managed to secure a community development grant to make a Human Library a reality on campus.
Here’s how it works: a member of the Swarthmore community (student, faculty, or staff) decides they have an experience they want to talk about. They register online as a “book” by giving a title to their topic as well as a brief description of what they want to talk about. A “reader” comes to the event and browses a list of titles and descriptions. They pick one they want to know more about, and sit down with that person for up to 15 minutes to hear them speak. From there, they can choose to renew the “book” and keep talking with the person, or they can “check out” other titles to hear about.

While the reception has been overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic, there have been a few voices that have misunderstood the function of the Human Library. Some claim that we are “tokenizing” people by reducing complex identities into single words such as “Muslim” and so on. The titles that were displayed on our website were pulled directly from titles used in other human libraries, since we do not yet have any example titles of our own to use. However, we also give “books” the full autonomy to choose their own titles, as well as a brief description of what they want to talk about, so they are free to use as many or as little words to describe themselves as they like. Others thought that the Human Library was unfair because it places the burden of education upon the book. While education is certainly a part of the process, people who volunteer as books have total say over what they want to speak about. Rather than being peppered with questions by the reader, they are meant to reflect on their own experiences however they choose to and can then invite the reader to ask questions if they wish.

On a more basic level, some expressed concerns about the inherent structure and language of a “Human Library,” namely that having people as “books” is dehumanizing or that oppression is being exploited for entertainment. This is essentially the opposite of what we are doing. We are providing a space for people to share stories they want people in their community to know about. It is entirely voluntary and devoid of any form of censorship or coercion. No one is being recruited into sharing anything, nor are we seeking out specific tales. The point is to share stories that are often ignored or swept under the rug. What we are doing is simply opening up a platform for people to talk about things that might be uncomfortable to talk about otherwise and form friendships along the way.
Such a platform has great use at a place like Swarthmore where people converge from all over the world and encounter different types of people for the first time. Growing up in the rural South, I often joke that I had never met a Democrat before, which is fairly accurate. With the Human Library, I could potentially sit down with a peer actively involved in Democratic politics and learn about their passions directly from them without any of the bias or partisanship that often colors political portrayals in the media. In this sense, the Human Library has enormous potential to break down stereotypes and misperceptions. Students who choose to become “books” have total control over what they choose to say and represent, and from testimonials at other Human Libraries, this can be an incredibly empowering experience.

Everyone at Swarthmore has a story. Maybe you’ve had a weird job, or lived in an interesting place, or are studying in an unorthodox field. Whatever it might be, at the Human Library, we think that story is valuable and want to hear it. Please join us in Shane Lounge next Tuesday from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. to get started.

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