Reducing stigma and stereotypes by “reading” people, rather than books

Overview

Tactical Aim: 
Human Right: 
Country or Region: 
Organization: 
Human Library Organization

Human rights violations can easily stem from a lack of interaction and accustom among diverse social groups. By simulating a library checkout of people instead of books, the human library helps foster respectful dialogue between distinctive individuals and their peers, intending to promote understanding on various lifestyles within any given community. Since the first event in 2000, the human library movement has grown immensely, now having taken place in an estimated 70 nations across every region of the world.

The rights of individuality and freedom of personality are extensive throughout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The first Article dictates that all beings are created free and equal, establishing the basis for anti-prejudice movements worldwide. Individuals are granted a wide range of rights that are essential to the development of their person, including freedom of thought and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of association (as stated in Articles 18, 19, and 20, respectively). Additionally, Article 29 maintains one’s duties to their community, in which the free and full development of their personality is made possible. Despite these explicitly stated rights, discrimination and prejudice against various social groups remains a global issue. Without promoting understanding and dialogue between diverse peoples, intolerance easily leads to starker human rights violations.

The Human Library™ Organization, a Danish international nonprofit, aims to reduce prejudices and misinformed stereotypes that are commonly associated with different social identities. The Human Library™ Organization was the creation of Stop the Violence, a group formed by four friends from Copenhagen in the mid-1990s. The youth organization aimed to raise awareness and mobilize young adults in the campaign against urban violence. The group grew rapidly, and obtained over 30,000 members from across Denmark in just a few years. Leif Skov, director of the popular European Roskilde Festival, approached Stop the Violence in 2000; he wanted the group to design some events for the festival that would foster dialogue and be a positive, insightful experience for attendees. Human Library debuted at the Roskilde Festival, showcasing people rather than books; it proved to be an extremely successful event. The library ran for four consecutive eight-hour days, featuring 75 different titles. Over one thousand festival-goers participated in the event, prompting Stop the Violence to further develop and expand the event.

The methodology and function of the human library largely imitates that of typical community libraries filled with books and other media. The library features any number of diverse human “books”, each baring a unique social identity that can be associated with stereotypes and stigmas. These human books are usually local people within the community who want to volunteer their time and story in order to be a learning experience for others. Readers, or other community members, then “checkout” the human books; the pair will engage in an organic conversation about the human book’s identity, experience, opinions, etc. This human library is an outlet for patrons to engage in respectful, intriguing conversations with diverse individuals in a public space. The fostered dialogue is a tool to reduce stigma and promote understanding within a community.

Examples of human book titles include:

HIV+

Former Violent Extremist

Sexually abused

Ex-Convict

Baha'i

Deafblind

Transgender Minister

Religious Convert

Muslim

 

Homeless

Body Modification Extreme

Soldier (PTSD)

Teen Parent

 

Molested

Refugee

Religious Convert

Senior Citizen

 

The Human Library™ Organization intends to make the structure of a sponsored event as uniform and uncomplicated as possible. One must first contact the Human Library™ Organization in Copenhagen to register the event. The organization provides patrons with a guidebook for running the event, as well as additional advice and support to help make the library successful. The local event coordinator is then suggested to establish a planning committee, made up of two or more people. The committee is in charge of deciding how best to recruit books from at least five of the seven pillars of prejudices: ethnicity, religion, sexuality, occupation, social status, lifestyle, and health and disabilities (those who are misunderstood, stigmatized, marginalized, discriminated against in the community). The committee is also in charge of selecting the location and date of the event, and other logistics including important roles such as a “book depot manager”. This person takes care of the human books before the event, coordinates their availability during the events to ensure they are not overly exposed, and after the event. It is important to provide at least one orientation session with the books prior to the human library event, where they will meet each other and be trained to educate their readers, rather than be openly critical about any lack of understanding. The books are encouraged to practice their conversation tactics on one another, so that they will be well equipped to foster a healthy, insightful discussion with their future readers.

Since the initial event in 2000, human libraries have grown rapidly in popularity. Events have been held on every continent, in every region of the world. In Lismore, Australia, the public demand for the library was so high that the city was granted a government funded project. The city held a human library once a month for three consecutive years. In June 2011, a human library event was incorporated into the national American Library Association Conference, held in New Orleans. In 2014, the Human Library Chicago Chapter was founded by Marlena Johnson; the chapter regularly organizes human library events throughout the city, partnering with various universities and organizations. In 2016 the Human Library Organization and its partners intend to expand events in Brazil, the United States, and Canada, in addition to opening new networks in Ethiopia, South Africa, Sudan, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Israel, Mongolia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Tunisia.

Human libraries have proven to be an effective, transferable tool to cultivate discussion amongst diverse individuals, uniting communities around the world. The events are extremely cost-efficient to organize, as they utilize volunteers as participants. They are also normally held in public libraries, which are often an integral location used to connect community members. The high demand for events in cities like Lismore and Chicago reiterate the fact that human libraries are an insightful, beneficial experience for both books and readers alike. While conversations can be subject to uncomfortable or awkward turns, both books and librarians are trained to politely correct and educate the patrons, fostering a courteous discussion that is valuable for all involved. By promoting healthy dialogues between diverse individuals, human libraries can effectively reduce prejudice and stigmas, promoting social cohesion within a community.

About Human Library Organization: Founded in 2000, the Human Library Organization coordinates events around the world to reduce prejudice and cultivate dialogue about various social and cultural identities. The organization partners with local libraries and organizations in order to engage communities in respectful, beneficial discussions. Experiences from recent years have resulted in the development of Human Library Book Depots – these provide a continuous on-going process to recruit new books and prepare them for publication and their meeting with readers. For example, in addition to Copenhagen and other locations, new Human Library™ Book Depots are being established in Toulouse, Cairo, Tunis, and Singapore.

Additional resources:

 

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

This is an innovative tactic that can be easily replicated in many parts of the world. Education and open, respectful dialogue is a positive tool for combatting ignorance, prejudices, stigmas, and stereotypes (see this tactic for another example of engaging the community on human rights issues). By inviting the general public to interact with people who are typically misunderstood or outcasts in society offers a unique opportunity to break down barriers and find commonalities among each other. There are a number of critical considerations when using such a tactic. Protection of victims – “first, do no harm”: When using any tactic that relies on personal stories or victim participation, the protection of the victims is paramount. Organizations should assess potential threats and should not carry out the tactic if further harm may come to the victims.  Ensure a safe space: In order to protect victims, it is critical to set up the space for dialogue where people can learn and interact in a respectful way that promotes understanding and protects against forms of intolerance which would inflict further harm upon victims. Another tactic was carried out in China that facilitates respectful dialogue while also protecting the identity of victims.