The Human Library is a one-day event that allows patrons to come in to the library and check out another human being with an interesting story. Attendees are able to choose a “human book” from self-authored description cards that are set out on a table. Each human book has selected a title that reflects a common stereotype. Examples of human books at Joyner Library’s events were HIV, Overweight, Dyslexia, PTSD, Deaf, Rabbi, and more. After making their selection, the person is paired with their human book for a 15-30 minute conversation. This event has strong social justice implications, in that it may help address common stereotypes and allows for transparent conversations to occur in a safe space.
I started planning a Human Library event at Joyner Library after attending an instructional panel session at ALA Annual 2013 sponsored by the Social Responsibilities Round Table. I approached my supervisor and the dean of the library to pitch the idea, which was met in each case with reserved interest. These conversations helped me to understand the need for an elevator pitch for the Human Library; most people do not understand the format and purpose of the event on first brush. (For an example of my elevator pitch, see the first paragraph of this blog post.) I joined the library’s Diversity Committee and convinced the group to take on the event as an annual goal. Not long after, I applied for a Co-Curricular Collaborations Grant from ECU’s Student Affairs Division and was awarded one-time funds in the amount of $500. Even though the Human Library can be put on with little or no money, this grant was the springboard that has made the event a success. Not only did I receive $500 to spend on food, flyers, and T-Shirts, but Student Affairs provided us with a student from the graphic design department who helped us create a unified look and feel for the event. I made many connections with potential human books through the clubs and interest groups falling under the umbrella of Student Affairs, as well.
The event is not difficult to plan, but it does take time. Finding and coordinating the human books is the most difficult part of planning the event. Try brainstorming ideas of what kinds of books you would like to recruit for the event, and then go about finding them. The best human books are those who represent their group or cause with poise and some objectivity. People who are used to talking about their experiences already make great human books. Look for campus and community partners like an LGBT Center, Multicultural Center, Hillel, or the Native American Student Association and ask who has experience speaking with the public. You will need to have that elevator speech prepared in writing and verbally to explain the event. The Human Library is all about making a connection, and that rings true for those coordinating the event, as well. You will talk to many potential human books and curious attendees. You have to be organized to keep all of the human books’ stories straight, as well as keeping all the details of the event in motion. It helps to have one main contact person. You do not have to have funds to put on the Human Library, although we have been lucky to receive $500 each year that we use to put on the event. After the successes of the first year, the Friends of Joyner Library have supported the costs of T-Shirts and food for the Human Books. If you do not have funds for the event, the basics include people, paper, and promotion, as well as a place to have it in. All of these can be secured for little to no funds. If you do have a budget, you can spend these on treats, T-Shirts, and take-homes, like buttons. Look for sponsors who may be a source of marketing and human books.
We have now put on the Human Library at Joyner Library for two years. The first year we had 75 total checkouts over a 4-hour span. There were 32 human books recruited for the first event. For the second year, we had 37 human books and 106 total checkouts. In the first hour alone, we had over 60 checkouts. This was due to connections I made with faculty the second year. Since we were no longer receiving grant money from Student Affairs, we were able to tie the event to the curriculum. Some classes that came over were from the Psychology department, a Folklore class, and even a group of students learning English as a Second Language. We also had a special theme each year for the event. The first year, we had a larger representation of LGBT human books. The second year we had four human books on the topic of Judaism, since we wanted to address an anti-Semitic occurrence that happened on campus. We had our first ever “e-Book” this year, who was a student studying abroad in Israel and who Skyped in to the event and spoke to attendees via an iPad.
The Human Library event has brought media attention to Joyner Library, as well. Our event was featured in the local newspaper, the student newspaper, the front page of the university website, the local evening news, marketing TVs around campus, and in the EEO office’s newsletter. We now have stronger relationships with Student Affairs and with offices on campus, such as Veterans Affairs, the Multicultural Center, the Volunteer and Service Learning Center, and many more. The Human Library could be a great event for other types of libraries, such as public libraries, or a high school library. If you are thinking of putting on a Human Library and would like to see examples of my planning documents and feedback from attendees, please visit: http://media.lib.ecu.edu/DE/HumanLibrary.zip
If planning a Human Library seems a bit overwhelming, you can also try a format that I recently designed for a conference presentation. Have attendees each write one or two lines of something interesting or different about themselves on an index card. Take the cards from attendees and locate the ones that you think will be of special interest. Then split the group into two groups and allow your “readers” to read the cards and choose a human book for a conversation.
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This post was authored by Katy Kavanagh Webb, of East Carolina University. She is originally from the Midwest but now lives and works in Greenville, NC. She is the Head of Research and Instructional Services at Joyner Library.
J.Y. Joyner Library (seen left) is the main campus library of East Carolina University, the third largest school in the UNC state system. The school has a FTE of 27,000 students.