Instead of borrowing a book, you borrow a human being

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Book lovers often talk about having a visceral connection with fictional characters, connecting with their literary heroes as if they were alive. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert believed in getting lost in books “like in a perpetual orgy”. Orgies aside, the notion of living books isn’t so crazy, because the long Human Library Project attests. Founded in Denmark in 2000, the project, which is now active in 70 countries including Australia, organizes events in libraries, schools and festivals where users “borrow” a human being, as they would a book, for about half an hour to hear his story.

Human “books” have their own titles and layouts, which they write themselves. Credit:Artwork by Drew Aitken

“People often think of acquiring knowledge as something that is done through books,” says Dr Greg Watson, a human rights scholar at Curtin University and coordinator of Human Library Australia. “Our message is that you can seek knowledge not just in books, but by talking to someone with first-hand experience.”

Watson, who lives in Perth, came across the Human Library while researching for his PhD in human rights education in 2011. He was so taken with the idea that he organized his own event at the Willagee Library in south-west Perth in 2013. Human books work much like those on paper, he explains: “They have their own titles and blurbs, which they write themselves. . Readers select the ‘book’ they want, then sit down and have a conversation.”

Most human books come from marginalized backgrounds: Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. The guiding principle is to develop empathy. “By sitting down and talking with someone from a different background, people learn not to judge a book by its cover,” Watson says.

Libraries are free to use, but come with rules. Readers are allowed to ask any questions they wish, but must be prepared for the “book” to ask questions back. Either party may decline to respond. “You want to give each person power over their own story,” Watson says.

Prior to COVID-19, Richmond Tweed Regional Library in northern Lismore, NSW operated a human library, and there is talk of an “opening” in Melbourne (volunteers can contact Watson at humanlibraryaus.org). But keep in mind that human libraries have limitations. Many people read at night – in bed. This service is currently not an option, impassive Watson. “For that, you’ll have to ask your partner.”

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