On Saturday, Ottawa city libraries will host the Human Library, where patrons check out people instead of books. The volunteer-based program brings together a diverse group of about 60 people, including a pediatric neurosurgeon, an HIV-positive man and a prostitute.
Library patrons can sign up for a 20-minute one-on-one chat with one of the volunteers after reviewing short biographies. It’s a novel spin on the learning process and provides a chance for interactions that might not happen otherwise.
Ottawa’s Human Library is a take on a similar program that started in Denmark in 2000. The program’s aim was to reduce prejudices and promote dialogue.
The Human Library program is not without its problems, and its main flaw comes from marketing.
The gimmicky use of the words “book” for the program’s volunteers and “reader” for the library card holder implies a degree of objectification for those involved.
In the program’s etiquette rules, phrases like “The Reader is not allowed to ask the Book for personal contact information,” are more kitschy than useful.
Labeling someone according to their profession can do them a disservice. But in this case, the labels are used to direct conversation rather than facilitate prejudice.
People are participating in the program on a volunteer basis and their label is self-assigned. Along with providing access to information, the Human Library program shows that human books are more than their title suggests.
Libraries have struggled to maintain relevance in a time where an infinite amount of information is available online.
The Human Library program allows libraries to expand their role. Libraries are no longer just places of learning but also community centres.
The Human Library is a chance for people to have conversations and learn from another’s subjective experience. Having a personal conversation with a police officer or a refugee, two of the people partaking in the program, would provide a glimpse at a life that’s otherwise unknown.
Speaking with someone for 20 minutes doesn’t provide a full understanding of his or her life, but a conversation can provide a chance for unconventional learning.
Research collected in books is born from compiling subjective experience. Primary sources, like the volunteers telling their stories are the foundations that books are built upon.
The volunteers may not have the authority that a well-researched book has, but the human books can enlighten people in a different way. Listening to a story has a different effect than simply reading an account and first-hand experience has a distinct value alongside academic books.
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