On a recent Zoom call, Lorraine Lally shared space with 16 strangers. The participants of the call had originated from eight different countries, representing a diverse range of ages, backgrounds, and gender expressions. Yet, they were all gathered in the virtual space for the same reason: to learn from and ask questions of a domestic abuse survivor.
“Even in this room with all these other people, you could feel the emotional transference. You could see it on people’s faces, even on camera. You could see the impact it was having on people,” Lally said.
This was clearly not an ordinary conversation, and the 16 people in the Zoom room weren’t just passive participants. They were “reading” a “book” on “loan” from the Human Library.
“The Human Library provides some of the most stigmatized groups in the community with a chance to be unjudged,” said Ronni Abergel, CEO and head of administration for the Copenhagen-based non-profit organization. “We’re not fighting for diversity. We’re a safe space to explore it.”
Their mission was reflected in Lally’s experience: “You could see she wasn’t just a survivor of domestic abuse. She was a mother, she was a sister, she was someone’s daughter. She was part of the bigger family of human beings,” Abergel said.
We’re not fighting for diversity. We’re a safe space to explore it. — Ronni Abergel, CEO and head of administration for The Human Library
Established in 2000 by Abergel, his brother Dany, and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen, the Human Library is a global initiative that merges curiosity, understanding, and acceptance among people with a traditional library framework. In any Human Library depot (or, currently, during organized virtual events) average people (“readers”) can request to have a conversation with (“read”) someone who identifies in a particular way. Readers “check out” these “human books” for a “loan period of 30 minutes.
Human books cover a wide range of identities and experiences: They are people who deal with alcoholism, housing insecurity , and post-traumatic stress disorder. They have autism and epilepsy. They are refugees, naturists and Holocaust survivors. They are unemployed, single parents, and polyamorous. Regardless of their backgrounds, how they identify, or what their life experiences have been, the Human Library’s overarching message is this: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for some of these books because most of their lives, they were maybe not included or not invited or deselected, or maybe even hated upon, because of who they are, so I’m keen to see them utilize their stigma as a competence,” Abergel said.
Readers are welcome to ask any questions they want (as long as they’re respectful), and books openly and honestly answer those questions without judgment. “There is an element of discomfort with this,” Abergel said, “because sometimes we’ll be talking about difficult issues, big taboos, and challenging stigmas and stereotypes that need us to be very personal and open and also take some responsibility for the fact we all have unconscious biases and they impact our decision making, especially our social navigation.”
Change happens with a dialogue, not a monologue. — participant, Mindy Kelley
Research has shown storytelling has the capacity to engage, influence, teach, and inspire listeners, but Abergel emphasizes that even though books engage readers with their stories, the Human Library isn’t about storytelling. Rather, it’s the two-way, conversation-based format that makes the Human Library so powerful. “Progress doesn’t happen by reading a traditional book,” said Mindy Kelley, who recently attended a virtual reading. “Change happens with a dialogue, not a monologue.”
Abergel has been committed to the Human Library’s potential as an ecosystem that enables conversation since its inception. “I realized the first day of the idea that this could have global implication and be embedded in any society around the world,” he said. “I just didn’t know if it would work.” In their first decade, the Human Library operated under an unsustainable “pop-up” model without standard protocols. This led to them attracting partners and participants that didn’t respect books or the concept.
Today, there are book depots in more than 50 countries and local publishing partners in 80 countries. The Human Library now has a licensing process with specific quality and content criteria. Regardless of where in the world they are located, human books go through an application, interview, and training process so they are properly prepared to go into circulation. “We are not in a rush,” Abergel said. “We want to do this properly, care for our books, and create the right opportunity for readers.”
The exact number of books in circulation is unknown, though Abergel estimates 20,000 to 25,000 people globally are published in a given year. In Copenhagen, for example, there is a book depot with almost 200 editions. In Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, there are 55 editions. With the addition of two smaller book depots, the country has more than 300 editions in circulation. The Human Library held about 100 events in Denmark in 2021, including a book tour that visited parts of the country without access to book depots.
Books are volunteers and the Human Library accommodates their availability, so like any library, readers off the street never know what editions might be available when they stop in. Their life cycles vary, and books can take themselves out of circulation at any time. The Human Library is always interested in expanding its collection; an online application is available for anyone interested in becoming a book.
Like many non-profit organizations, the Human Library has struggled with funding over the years. Because it doesn’t address any single issue or exist for any single group of people, the organization doesn’t qualify for highly focused funding opportunities.
However, in 2016, the organization recognized an opportunity to leverage funding for development and growth in civil society by working with corporations, including well-known international brands like Heineken, Tesco, and Procter & Gamble. The Human Library offers these companies a new approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion training by hosting reading hall events with books and even training internal human bookshelves within companies.
Corporate work enables the Human Library’s outreach in communities, but these partnerships also have the potential to accelerate and amplify the Human Library’s mission. “Who can have great impact on society and making change if not decision makers and leaders?” Abergel said. “If we can get leaders to engage with this and learn from us, we’re actually impacting a lot more than we would if we were open in the public community library, where it’s random people that show up.”
The Human Library’s most recent challenge, of course, has been adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the pandemic, all in-person events were cancelled and the organization transitioned to a virtual model. Initially, Abergel said, “I believed that digital distancing would be a barrier for us.” However, this online environment gives readers a chance to leave if they feel uncomfortable, and, though the technology is a barrier for some books and readers, the Human Library has become a more accessible space for most people because they can participate in readings from anywhere in the world.
“Here I was, sitting in my living room in the United States along with three other readers — one in the UK, one in Israel, and one fellow American — as we all listened intently to a book about a Holocaust survivor from the Netherlands,” Kelley said. “Reading this book was intimate, gut wrenching, beautiful, raw, and educational. Essentially all the emotions in the most respectful of settings.”
Despite initial hesitations about moving to virtual readings, the Human Library recognizes its potential and is launching a digital service in 2022. This nearly on-demand service will allow readers with library cards to browse a board noting books “publishing” soon. If any pique their interest, they can join other readers in a virtual ecosystem with a limited seating capacity for a reading.
With this expansion, the Human Library will be able to reach even more readers, which is one of the organization’s long-term goals. Their larger goal is to continue helping people around the world work together to form community and address global challenges. “I think our key role is to ensure sustainability, availability, and access and then it will grow,” Abergel said. “It will be something you get used to, and it will be a place you go to when you need information about things that aren’t easily accessible elsewhere and you need to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
Lally agrees. “The Human Library has the potential to tackle online and in-person social isolation and social exclusion through informal education,” she said. “This human connection and the shared experience — I’m not sure you can put a price on it.”