By Kinjal Dagli-Shah,Womens Feature Service
Ever looked at a person and wished you could read his mind? Now you can. The Living Library, an NGO based in Copenhagen, Denmark, has made it possible to ‘borrow’ humans on loan and ‘read’ them. It works like a regular library, except that you can ask questions, and the ‘books’ talk back.
Ronni Abergel, one of the founders of the Living Library, says, “A living book is a person who has chosen to be a public representative of a certain group. They have ‘titles’, like Transgendered, Male Ballet Dancer, Ex Stripper, Muslim, Teenager, Refugee or Immigrant. The ‘titles’ are numerous, and differ from country to country. So readers can request a particular title, and spend half an hour or more with their book talking about their issues and experiences. And they must return the book in the same condition it was in when borrowed.”
Candice Tremblay, 23, a sustainability coordinator at the University of Alberta, Canada, ‘read’ four books last spring – ‘A Yankee Among Us’, ‘Two Wars and a Revolution’, ‘Feminist Guy’, and ‘Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’. She chose the last one because she has friends, both male and female, who have suffered from sexual abuse of some kind. “I always felt helpless in wanting to aid them. After talking to Kim Fordham – the real name of the Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse title – I have a little bit of a better understanding of what victims of sexual abuse go through and deal with,” recalls Tremblay, adding that sensitive ‘titles’ often leave a lasting impression on the reader. “Initially, I felt like I was imposing because I didn’t know Kim and I felt she was sharing a very intimate part of her life with me. But Kim wants to share her story (and, by doing so, she hopes to help others). She was open to people asking questions and was very honest. The experience was reflective and moving,” she says.
On her part, Dr Kim Fordham, Associate Professor of German at the University of Alberta, was more than happy to become a ‘book’ and create awareness about the issue. “My interest in doing such presentations came from my own healing journey. I feel that it is important that young women see that there are role models of healing out there, who are willing to speak about abuse and understand that the shame does not belong with the victim. I was abused for many years, from about when I was four-five till I was 17, by my mother’s brother,” says Fordham, who also acts as a resource person for female students, who seek her out to share their own stories of abuse.
Fordham is 46 years old now, and did sue her uncle for the cost of her therapy. But her goal is to change how society reacts to sexual abuse survivors. “At the Living Library, I thought that I might not be ‘taken out’ due to the sensitivity around the topic. But I was taken out by large numbers of students. It was a very good experience. Each group was different, and therefore the conversation was quite different as well. There were women who talked to me about the abuse in their mother’s past, friends of people who had been raped, and women who were on their own healing journey,” she says.
With experiences like these, the Living Library has already spread its roots across the globe. “We are already in 38 countries and the next to join are Ireland, Greece, Mexico, and soon, Kenya and China in 2010. Our goal is to reach out to 100 nations in the next three years,” says Abergel, adding that the Living Library typically is introduced either through universities or community libraries in the host country. “In some countries, we get introduced by organisations using this methodology in their diversity work, or to bring attention to topics like mental health problems or minority issues.”
The San Antonio Public Library in Texas brought the Living Library home with a focus on professions that have the most stereotypes attached, like tattoo artists, female firefighter and male ballet dancer. Librarian Haley Holmes says they had 100 checkouts of their 15 books in a four-hour period. “A couple in their 80s came to our event, and the wife was most interested in checking out the tattoo artist. Both husband and wife were excited by what they learned. The tattoo artist too talked about how he was touched by their visit and felt like the woman could have been his grandmother,” recalls Holmes.
Holmes says that people who chose to check out the different books were surprised by what they found. “Our books were unique individuals who did not meet the stereotypes. Many meaningful conversations were held amongst the books and readers, leaving both sides with a greater understanding of the other,” she adds.
The unique way of helping people voluntarily get rid of their prejudices is attracting countries that sometimes introduce ‘books’ specific to their economy or society. Like Slovenia, where a title called ‘Erased’ is increasingly popular and relevant to their socio-political environment. “‘Erased’ are a special category of people, who lost all their citizen rights when Slovenia became an independent country in 1991,” says Nejc Sinc, who helped organise the Living Library in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
He explains the historical context of ‘erased’ people: “From World War II till the 80s, hordes of people moved from countries like Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia to Slovenia. It didn’t matter then because they were all Yugoslavian Republics. But when Slovenia became independent, it gave the ‘migrants’ a chance to opt for Slovenian citizenship within six months. In that limited time frame, some were abroad, some were ill, some just weren’t aware they had to apply, and others probably couldn’t decide. So the state erased them from all files, deeming them ‘illegal’ and cut off all benefits. For instance, a person who had been paying for his pension for 30 years now wasn’t even allowed to stay in Slovenia.”
Sinc, along with Jasna Magic, project coordinator at Legebitra, have in conjunction with Slovene Philanthropy, organised about five events each year since the first in 2007. “Our other bestselling titles have been Covered Muslim, Priest, A Slovenian Who Accepted Islam, Gay, and Person Who Overcame Bulimia,” he says.
While the experiences from around the globe are heartening, there’s a long way to go, and several stereotypes to dispel. Nancy Goebel, head librarian at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, just organised a Living Library event last month, and hopes to have one each fall and winter. With titles like Funeral Director, Experienced Racism, Single Mom and Testicular Cancer Survivor, Goebel had a great response. “The programme and the strength of our books contribute to issues and prejudices being eradicated but I doubt they succeed in eliminating them that quickly. But it is great to hear people in conversation, and working together to face life’s ‘hard’ issues.”
(People and organisations interested in organising a Living Library event must contact the headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.)