Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sharing Community Stories through the Human Library

As a cultural heritage professional (librarian, archivist -- whatever you want to call me), I am continually looking for ways to bring communities together. My work with ArchivesInfo and my work as a high school information specialist meld quite well together, allowing me to explore ways to share and document community stories. I am happy to report on my most recent experience to meet this end. It was a huge success and I think it is an endeavor that would be beneficial to many communities.


Around this time last year, I applied for my school to host a "Human Library." I pulled in two other librarians at different institutions so that we could partner on events centered around National Library Week. [You can read about the collaboration between institutions here.] 

According to the Human Library's Facebook page,

The Human Library concept is about offering people as books... To be lent out to curious readers who will ask them questions and challenge their perceptions on different groups in the community.
[Human] Books typically have titles that aim to represent a stigmatized or stereotyped group of people in the community. This could be a religious minority or sexual minority or other members of the community who are exposed to general misconceptions, stigma, stereotyping and or prejudice.

The purpose being to challenge what we think we know about other members of the community. To challenge our stereotypes and prejudices in a positive framework, where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated. 

To integrate the Human Library objective with our school's mission, I focused our educational event on breaking down stereotypes about occupations and the people who practice them. My partners at the local public library and a local university ran more "traditional" human libraries than I. Their events brought in people with more varied lifestyles and labels that often evoke very strong feelings. The career focus at our school served a two-fold purpose, to show our students that they can be anything they want to be regardless of their background, ethnicity, sex and other factors beyond their control. It also encouraged students to recognize the diversity of people working in very varied careers and the wide-variety of career paths that we may take. Few of our human books had stayed in their original field of choice. Some switched careers many times. Some had little idea of what they wanted to do for work at the outset of their adult lives. They either fell into a position or had a mentor guide them to a good place. All of our books were willing to share their diverse experiences, including their successes, failures, prejudices they had to overcome, and more.

I chatted with one of our human books while others met
with students. photo by Carol Robidoux
I recognized that the professionals who came to visit us might be influenced by their career choices beyond their working environments, but I wanted to show my teens that knowing someone's job title does not tell their whole story. Twenty-four professionals shared stories we don't normally hear about what their work entails, how it impacts their life and the lives of others. For example, we had a male librarian who was formerly a lawyer. He does not spend a lot of time reading, but he likes the variety and environment that a career in the library sciences brings him. (What did students think of someone giving up law for librarianship? How did they react to find out that a librarian may not be a "bookworm?")

When we ask people about their careers, we do not often ask them about what they had to overcome to get where they are today. Yet, that's what kids need to hear. In fact, that's what we all need to hear. We all have things to overcome and by sharing those experiences we better understand each other and our own place in the world.

I had only positive feedback from student "readers," our human books, and our school faculty. I asked for negative feedback and only heard that 15 minute chats, as is a standard time allotted in human library checkouts, were too short. Even students who were at first reluctant to participate said after the fact that it was a positive experience for them. Teachers asked if they can be readers next year too. Books asked to come back.  In fact, I have never run an event that had such positive reviews all around!

I now need to figure out how to document these experiences in our school archives. I am hoping that the encouragement to talk one-on-one with adults, something that many kids don't often get to do these days -- to ask question and explore one's curiosity -- will help lead us gently into an oral history project that I am planning for a 50th anniversary celebration. I hope that we have broken the ice to encourage more community conversations.

Stay tuned!


See the Robidoux Ink Link "Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover"  for news coverage of the "Human Library" event.

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