The Living Library was launched at a music festival in Denmark in 2000 by Ronni Abergel, an antiviolence campaigner, who has taken the Living Library to places as diverse as Australia and Turkey.
“So what?”, you say. Well, the USP of this library is that it isn’t filled with books, but people. Real people who you borrow, spend time with and, at the end of your 30-minute chat, you return them. The ‘human books’ on offer vary from event to event but always include a cross-section of individuals who represent stereotypes that often are the target of prejudice or hatred. For example, the first session in the UK last April made available 26 books including a Muslim, an immigrant, a witch, an Indian atheist – and a trans woman, Kerry Whybrow, who says her readers were interested in why she made the change. She says it was a chance to do a little PR for trans people in Britain.
As Ronni Abergel, the Living Library founder, says:
“We live in a time where we need dialogue. With dialogue comes understanding and with that comes tolerance and that’s the mission of the Living Library: to promote understanding and tolerance through dialogue.”
Apparently the concept is proving popular in Australia with a regular Living Library session once a month in New South Wales. “Turkey’s just got up and running, and Germany and Austria are doing very well,” adds Abergel, who says he has spent 50 percent of his spare time over the past eight years working on his project, which has now lined up sessions in Canada and the US.
While I’m all in favour of the basic idea, I do have a couple of reservations. For one thing, I wonder just how likely one person is to overcome hir prejudice during a 30-minute conversation. And for another, I’ve a feeling that the people who could most benefit from the experience aren’t too likely to visit a Living Library in the first place.
But I guess you have to start somewhere, and, in the words of Kerry Whybrow:
“I’m making my journey and I want people to understand that,” she says. “If only 10 of your readers pick up on that and change their attitudes, that’s 10 fewer people that are going to be bigoted in their attitude towards some poor old transgender person.”