In ‘The Human Library’, people are books. Designed as a way to challenge stereotypes and prejudices, each ‘book’ is an opportunity for people to share their personal stories with the readers to foster discussions on sensitive topics. These books are given categories which often provoke strong reactions, such as ‘Molested’, ‘HIV’, ‘Homeless’, or ‘Refugee,’ which people can pick up to read stories of individuals they might ordinarily not engage with. This project started in 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark and is now implemented across 70 countries, including in Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Peru, the UK, the US, and Tunisia.
Human Libraries have shown great impact on their audience. At Nova New Opportunities, a charity that organises Human Libraries in London, 85% of participants report they are more likely to challenge prejudice after having participated in one of these events. Where extremist ideologies dehumanise, discriminate and deny the human rights of those against their world view, initiatives like the Human Library can expose and breakdown the beginning of prejudice, creating the interaction, dialogue, empathy and understanding between identity groups who may not organically interact. Instilling such opportunities into the fabric of communities can ultimately lead to greater social cohesion and resilience prevent the draw of divisive ideologies at the local level.
Aimee Ling is the Lead Programme Manager of the Wider Community Programme at Nova New Opportunities. As she explains, cities can support these events in many ways. For example, Aimee works with local Prevent Strategy teams alongside other organisations who support her to identify people that might be willing to act as books. Sometimes, there might even be individuals working for the city that can become books – in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the local councillors shared her story at a Human Library.
Cities can also help promote these events: sharing social media communications, reaching out to local newspapers, or connecting the organisers to other local organisations that are close to their community. Human Libraries are also very cost effective, as the primary cost incurred is linked to the time necessary to organise such an event. Cities can allocate a portion of their budget to organising these events but they can also help with in-kind support, for example by providing a space.
However, there are many challenges associated with The Human Library which cities are uniquely placed to help solve. One of these challenges is simply reaching more people. To that end, the Human Library Organization also works with local authorities and companies, bringing the books to the workplace or other events in an effort to understand diversity and show that there is more that unites us than divides. Human Libraries are not only a great social cohesion project, but they can also enable a city to gain a greater understanding of local communities and their concerns.