The Living Library – take out your prejudice?

January 1, 2009

What's YOUR prejudice?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.”

(Via eTransgender and ABC News)

12 Responses to “The Living Library – take out your prejudice?”

  1. HelenGB Says:

    while i agree that bigots aren’t going to be persuaded in a 30 minute session or even after several, I think the point is that you are talking to the average person who will only know the Sun/Mail version of “reality” and who may be surprised at how different we are in person.

    I gave a 45 minute talk to a bunch of 6th formers in a school a year or so back and I’m told that it was viewed very postively by the students and also their peers who they later talked to. Just simply by being there and a real live person instead of a stereotype . So I think it’s a positive move


  2. I think this could be a great resource for parents. There’s also the fact that sometimes we can underestimate the extent of our belief in stereotypes. I might THINK that I don’t buy into them but the Living Library might reveal otherwise, so I think it has the potential to help people who aspire to be more ethical but need to have their views challenged in order to get there.


  3. Seems like a worthwhile exercise. What harm could it possibly do?

  4. shiva Says:

    What the hell?

    This is actually really disturbing to me – it seems to basically say “oppressed/marginalised people can be treated as property” (to be “borrowed”, something must be “owned”), and simultaneously that an explanation of difference is something that the “normal” have a right to demand at will from the “different” (a term commonly used in the autistic liberation movement is “self-narrating zoo exhibit”).

    Do the people involved in this get paid or compensated? Can they refuse to answer questions? What if the person “borrowing” them assaults, insults or sexually propositions them?

    People are not books. People cannot be owned or loaned. I’m amazed this critique hasn’t already been expressed of this idea…

  5. Helen G Says:

    shiva: Good points – and “self-narrating zoo exhibit” has given me pause for thought…

    I guess I’ve been a bit focused on the idea of dialogue; it struck me as an opportunity for one-to-one communication that might have some value – I’m increasingly concerned at just how often trans people’s voices are completely ignored – but “self-narrating zoo exhibit”, that’s a powerful mental image…

    I need to give this more thought, quite obviously.

    I don’t know the answers to the specific questions you raise; I can only assume that there have been no problems so far

    Hmm.
    :/

  6. Helen G Says:

    ETA:

    shiva: First of all, thank you for your comment above; it’s really made me (re-)question several things and I’m grateful for the wake-up call. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what you said and if I could come back to you with a couple more thoughts? I’m interested to hear your views…

    To break down your first paragraph:

    “oppressed/marginalised people can be treated as property” (to be “borrowed”, something must be “owned”). I really hadn’t thought of it in this way before but, on reflection, maybe I see your point. Some aspects (probably the more obvious ones) of the power imbalance implicit in being (in my case) a trans woman in a cis people’s world have been apparent to me for quite a while now, and I suppose it makes sense that such an imbalance could easily include the notion that “oppressed/marginalised people can be treated as property”. I begin to see how that could be considered as another aspect of objectification and Othering.

    [A]n explanation of difference is something that the “normal” have a right to demand at will from the “different” – this is something which I think I’ve been aware of at an almost subliminal level, something I haven’t faced up to as directly as this before. Maybe, to paraphrase something I said elsewhere – it’s not so much the occurrence itself that bothers me, but the fact that I’ve encountered it so often that I seem to have become desensitized to it. Meaning that, it seems to have been necessary for me to explain my gender dysphoria to so many people, so many times, that I don’t even question it myself any more. It’s just something one has to do. Obviously that doesn’t mean it has to be that way, but sometimes it’s the more pragmatic option, to go through another Trans 101 whilst mentally reminding oneself that the ends justifies the means. Equally obviously, there’s a cynicism in that view which I’m not comfortable with, but one needs to find ways of interacting with Planet Cis if one is to co-exist with it. I think it’s fair to say that many people have to make compromises to some degree, but for me, well, maybe I need to reconsider the compromises I personally make and see if there are any practical alternatives to the less palatable ones.

    (Just don’t even start me on the “justify your entire existence” flavour of transphobia so routinely and uncompromisingly imposed on trans women by certain cis women feminists)

    Picking through the specific questions in your middle paragraph one by one, I’ve been clicking around the Living Library website but with varying results in the way of finding answers. It seems a very generalised site, but I think where answers aren’t directly to be found, there are hints as to the organisers’ approach:

    Do the people involved in this get paid or compensated? – The short answer seems to be no: In the history of the Living Library, all books have been volunteers. There are no paid books, and the services of the Living Library is also free – although it seems that travelling expenses are paid.

    Can they refuse to answer questions? – Hmm. The nearest I could find to an answer is: One of the great features of the Living Library and taking out a book, is that there are no such thing as stupid questions. Books have been prepared and made themselves available, in order for you to be able to dig deep and find out what you always wanted to know about the book title. But presumably one must always retain the right not to answer questions which are offensive, or too personal, or irrelevant, and the following seems to hint at that: You are encouraged to ask questions and share your own point of view, but always with respect for the person who has volunteered. The Living Book can choose to discontinue a loan and return to the Library, if he or she feel so inclined.

    What if the person “borrowing” them assaults, insults or sexually propositions them?The Living Book may be taken around the Library but not outside the building or grounds. The Book will be familiar with the reading areas available, so choose a good spot together to chat. You are not allowed to lend the Book to someone else. Also, and this is the nearest I could find to a mention of personal safety, and it is pretty oblique, it has to be said: Please remember that all Living Books have kindly volunteered to be lent out as examples of some of the most common prejudices in our society. They must be returned to us in the same condition, as they where in at the time of check-out.

    And your last point: People are not books. People cannot be owned or loaned. Well, no. Quite. But I think I was approaching it from the point of view of a potential information exchange, rather than a transaction for (temporary) ownership of an objectified person.

    In the light of what you’ve said, it certainly begins to seem that the metaphor of a library has limited value, and may indeed actually work against the aim of making a “keep it simple”, “no-nonsense” contribution to social cohesion in multicultural societies.

    Although I also still feel that the basic idea of attempting to provide a concrete, easily transferable and affordable way of promoting tolerance and understanding isn’t actually a Bad Thing per se.

    Ends and means, always ends and means, she sighed wearily, wandering off to reconsider consequentialism

  7. Winter Says:

    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.

    Yup. Weirdly enough, someone already approached me about this idea and asked if I would like to be a “book” if a similar project gets set up in my area. Aside from the fact that I agree with Shiva in principle (I’m not an object to be “taken out” and interrogated!), I would also feel very uncomfortable “representing” lesbians. I don’t represent anyone other than myself. Plus I’m suspecting that there would be a lot of implicit pressure to present as a “good” gay and demonstrate how lovely and normal, unthreatening and “just like them” I am. If I was totally honest with a homophobic person, they would probably find me confirmation of their worse nightmares!

    I agree with the basic idea that we need more dialogue and I’ve seen from my own experience that getting to know someone in real life really can break down prejudice, but it can’t be a one-way process — oppressed groups proving themselves to people who don’t like them! That’s just not fair.

  8. shiva Says:

    “But I think I was approaching it from the point of view of a potential information exchange, rather than a transaction for (temporary) ownership of an objectified person.”

    I get the point and the intent… but it’s portrayed as the latter, seemingly without any thought at all as to how screwed up that is. I think it’s more likely to have been ill-thought-out than a deliberate attempt to objectify, but… well, it’s obvious to me, with my supposed lack of “theory of mind”/social empathy. It should be even more obvious to other people…

    (Then again, i suppose i could be more sensitive to this sort of thing because of my experience of disability and objectification. Dunno… but i am amazed that no one involved picked up on the (instant to me) inherent squickiness of a person being reduced to a “Book”…)

    “They must be returned to us in the same condition, as they where in at the time of check-out.”

    That’s… whoa. Gobsmacking, actually. Could be my lack of awareness of irony/tongue-in-cheek-ness, but to me that sentence is even more objectifying and almost seems to be mocking the concept of possible violence by reducing it to the equivalent of damaging an inanimate object…

    It sounds a bit like a piece of ironic performance art gone wrong, actually…


  9. […] a comment » On this thread at Helen G’s about The Living Library, Shiva had this comment to say which rather succinctly crystalised a lot of things for […]

  10. Helen G Says:

    shiva: Thank you for coming back; I value your insights and it’s clear I have a lot more work to do on my understanding of the dynamics of oppression(s).

    Winter also raised a useful point, I think: the question of whether the books’ views are to be considered representative in any way at all by either the readers or the organisers.

    There’s much here for me to think about.

  11. averydame Says:

    (Here via the QT link)

    I do think that their choice of metaphor, “the library,” really hampers attempts to keep from any kind of objectifying. The organizers very clearly want to provide possible attendees with an idea they can “interface” with to familiarize the possible unfamiliar experiences they will learn about at the Library, and to do this, they’re focusing on using “common” language to represent more complex parts of interpersonal relations. However, their choice has one key flaw: libraries are about nothing but the use of objects, and the language of library rules reflects this.

    Now, I also can’t think of a “better” metaphor at the moment, but I honestly think I’d rather there was no metaphor at all. Much less problematic.


  12. […] January 17, 2009 · Filed under Privilege, Queer Stuff &#183 Tagged grad students, Privilege, refugees, self-narrating zoo exhibit, trans Blogger Shiva made a thought-provoking comment in a fascinating discussion on Bird of Paradox: […]


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