On Saturday, September 30th, the Pointe-Claire Library conducted an exciting experiment: for one afternoon, seven people allowed themselves to be transformed into living books, creating a small but content-rich human library.
During the weeks leading up to it, the event was presented to the public this way:
“In honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we have gathered together a unique collection of « human books » so that you can enjoy a one-on-one conversation. Hear their stories, ask questions, and learn how a diverse set of experiences has contributed to our country’s rich heritage.”
The chosen “books” were of course drawn from the non-fiction section of the human library, and included: Clifford Lincoln, Alanis Obomsawin, Dan Brisebois, Nathalie Purchio, Neshat Tehrani, Alan Dean and Alan Hustak.
I was there in the role of fly on the wall, taking it all in so that I could share it with you; and I was also there to keep an eye on one human book in particular, Neshat Tehrani, whom I had the great privilege of meeting and getting to know when she entered my FSL (French as a Second Language) classroom six or seven years ago. I thought that if no one “borrowed” Neshat, for even a brief period, I could. I needn’t have concerned myself.
Not unexpectedly, the atmosphere was tentative at first. This was such a novel experience—pun intended—that no one knew what to expect or what the exact mechanics of it all were. Participants had been asked to make an appointment to “borrow” their book, and very soon, some curious “readers” strolled over to the table where they had spotted theirs (the event was held in the library’s reference section). But within fifteen minutes, people began sharing their human books, and at every table, were just pulling up a chair and joining in the animated conversations that were already flowing.
It all looked so captivating that my own skittishness at the thought of beginning a conversation with a stranger evaporated, transforming itself instead into a reticence to interrupt the flow of chatter!
Some “readers” were happily picking their human book’s brains (the “readers” at Dan Brisebois’ table may recognize themselves here; I was able to pick out their human book saying: “[…] should be in an area with an ambient temperature of […]”, before I was distracted by another group).
Others seemed intent on having fun (one mischievous participant asked her human book, Clifford Lincoln: “You sure you were born in Mauritius?”). There were also those who seemed perfectly content to just sit, ask a few questions and then allow their human book to speak.
Within three quarters of an hour, there were clusters of people around every human book. At one point, Alan Dean found himself surrounded by six rapt borrowers, and not long after, his lovely tenor voice floated above the din, accompanied by the solo acoustic guitar music playing in the background.
One “reader” expressed her delight in the spontaneity of the experience, and another, who had to leave midway, stopped to tell staff members that “It was great fun! It was a great idea!”, before heading out.
Though Canada’s 150th anniversary provided the inspiration for this imaginative event, we owe the concept of the HUMAN LIBRARY to a movement started sometime early in this century, in Copenhagen, Denmark. It’s the brainchild of the group of young idealists behind the Danish Stop The Violence Movement. The organization’s website features the motto “Never judge a book by its cover”, and states that:
“The Human Library™ is designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.
The Human Library is a place where real people are on loan to readers.
A place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered.”
In recent years, I’ve stumbled upon several articles tracking the link between fiction and compassion, including a piece in Scientific American, titled: “Novel Finding—Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy: The types of books we read may affect how we relate to others”.
If this is even only partially so, then the metaphor of the human library is perhaps the most beautiful reminder that each of us is a world, and each of us has a valuable story to tell.
Note to readers:
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Alanis Obomsawin, you can find out more by viewing wonderful examples of it found in the National Film Board archive.