A Story About Stories: Swarthmore’s Human Library

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When I first came across the idea for a Human Library 8 months ago, I was intrigued and confused. What was this ‘library’ thing? And why were people interested in it? After browsing the site for a few minutes, I found an answer. The Human Library seeks to bring real people together to have genuine, meaningful conversations – the kind we all want but are often afraid of having.

My friend and fellow Swarthmore Human Library Board member, Gilbert Guerra, wrote an excellent piece in The Phoenix detailing how the project came to be and how it works, while also addressing some of the concerns that have come up. I recommend you at least glance through it to get a better sense of how the project works.

We all seek to be understood, yet in our quest for acceptance and a sense of belonging, we become overcome with the possibility of rejection, and remain paralyzed in our own half-smiles. Consider for a moment the last time you felt vulnerable.

What was that moment like?

Maybe you were alone in your room or sitting among friends. Did you tell anyone how you felt? Or were you afraid that no one would understand you, or worse, care?

That to me is what the Human Library is fundamentally about – creating a space where people from across the spectrum can come together and talk, really talk, about their lives. You might be wondering, if I don’t think my closest friends can understand me, how could a stranger? I think the answer to that question lies in the heart of what makes the Humans of New York (HONY) and its imitations so compelling. A single story captured in one picture, one caption. It’s not much, yet from these small bits, we begin to piece together the lives of the people in the photo.

Take this photo, for example.

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 “I quit drugs three years ago. I was in a desperate place. I knew I was doing the wrong thing but I still couldn’t stop. Then one morning my brother asked me to come to church with him, and I came to know God. I started crying when the preacher asked if anyone wanted to come forward. And I haven’t done drugs since. Not long after that I met my girlfriend on a dating website. And she’s changed my life completely. She’s got her shit together. She’s got a job, she owns property— she doesn’t quit. I want to be a different man because of her. I’ve actually got an interview with the MTA in three hours. I sent them my resume forty-seven times. I need the pension and benefits so we can have children. She tells me that I should be doing it for myself. I tell her: ‘I am doing it for myself, but because of us, and thanks to you.”

This unnamed stranger reveals something deeply personal about himself to an audience of strangers. In a paragraph, he’s told us so much: former drug addict, father, partner, aspiring MTA worker, and more. We don’t judge him or pity him. Rather, we begin to understand him, and I think that’s absolutely incredible. What his example shows is that if we’re willing to open up and share our stories of struggle, someone will be willing to listen.

Alright, I’m done rambling; you’ve heard my side of the story. Now, I want to hear yours.

Featured image courtesy of swathumanlibrary.com.

Jacky Ye

Some people like cats. Some people like doges. I like quotes. Hola friends! My name is Jacky and I hail from El Monte, CA, a suburb near the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. In the past, I've been a choir boy, acquired joys, and admired soy. In my free time, you can find me eating Thai cuisine, writing prose and poetry (including freestyling poorly), singing, contemplating existence, or blogging @ jacky.space.

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