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“A Human Library?”  I first became aware of this concept while preparing for an interview with Bina Venkataraman about her book, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. The concept intrigued me, so my staff and I went on a journey to find out more.

The Human Library began in 2000 in Denmark. Human readers “check out” a “human book” for one-on-one conversations with a volunteer about a variety of subjects. The purpose of the Human Library is not only to create conversations, but to provide empathy and perhaps, most importantly, curiosity.

Arlington Public Library staff reached out to existing partnerships, nonprofit organizations, friends of friends, and the County’s employee resource groups to identify potential “books.” What we found is that our community, just like others, is full of people with many different stories.

Those that volunteered to tell their stories chose topics that varied from being a Muslim American, having an anxiety disorder, or being previously incarcerated. I participated as well. My title was “Coming Out Late.” The courage to speak to others about personal stories gave opportunities for people to listen in a respectful way and for others to be heard.

Photo by Daniel Rosenbaum

Living in a time where information is at our fingertips, it can be difficult to process the volume and it is easy to become overwhelmed with what’s happening in our world. The pandemic increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. The Human Library offered connection and an alternative.

After the event, what my staff and I found surprised us.

The conversations did not just become intellectual. The conversations became emotional.

Before the event, the staff and I believed the Human Library would be popular. The intention was to provide an experience that allowed our community to learn and gain empathy. We didn’t fully consider the power of conversation.

Conversations can be transformational. A participant shared how important my story was because her daughter recently just came out to her. Another participant spoke “glowingly” about the event because it was “great to break down barriers and prejudices.”

Photo by Daniel Rosenbaum

Our community’s engagement made people want to belong here with us. The library provides a place to go in a time of need.

Community and belonging were lost during the pandemic. People missed having a place to belong to. We’re accustomed to being attached to “something,” whether it’s our family, a book club, or the workplace.

Combining the Human Library with National Library Week reinforced our belief at Arlington Public Library that “everybody has a story.”

Stories, whether in human-form, paperback, or hardcover can captivate emotions, generate curiosity, and provide lessons.

This coming Spring, we will bring the Human Library back to Arlington. We are excited to serve the community with more conversations that foster curiosity, strengthen community, and create belonging. The power of respectful conversation is missing in our society. This event brings that.

The library is a home for stories. A place where everybody belongs. Always open. Always free. Forever human.


Diane Kresh, Director, Arlington Public Library

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