“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. … The man who never reads lives only one.”
The Human Library, an international project that began in Copenhagen and came to the University of Virginia last year, takes that concept to another level. Its essential question: Can “reading” another human open your mind as much as reading a book can?
“Readers” – those attending any one of the project’s events around the globe – can check out “books” – fellow human beings from all walks of life, each with a story to share. The conversations that ensue, organizers hope, can help break down stereotypes and foster understanding among different groups.
In “The Human Library: Charlottesville,” featured in the video above, UVA students, faculty members and Charlottesville residents have all served as “books.” The organization has hosted two events so far: one large pilot event on the Lawn last spring that featured 37 “books” and drew more than 250 attendees, and one smaller session in October that featured 14 “books.” At each event, attendees chose which “book” they wanted to speak with and spent the next half-hour in small-group conversations. Another large event is currently being planned for the spring.
Fourth-year engineering student Amy McMillen and classmate Alicia Wang, a student in the McIntire School of Commerce, brought the project to UVA after returning from a May term study-abroad session in Copenhagen in 2016.
“We saw a need for students and community members to talk about important issues, and we saw how ‘The Human Library’ concept had worked really well around the world,” McMillen said.
The co-founders hope that speaking with someone face-to-face can help dispel stereotypes and create more empathetic, productive conversations.
“Sometimes, hostility can come from not personally knowing someone who has been affected by a stereotype or prejudice,” Wang said. “This project can go a long way toward enhancing those personal connections.”
The group’s Facebook page offers short snippets from some of the students currently serving as “books,” including students who grew up around the world, students grappling with mental illness diagnoses, “Dreamer” students affected by the current debate in Congress around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, students dealing with illnesses or deaths in their families, and many more.
Fourth-year student Ryan Keen, who has joined Wang and McMillen on the project’s leadership team, shared his story at both the spring and fall events, focusing on the theme of resilience. He grew up in a rural, low-income community and has overcome many challenges to pay his way through UVA.
“What I have learned over the past four years is that, when I graduate in May, I will have something that no one can ever take away from me: an education,” Keen said. “Education has the power to get you through difficult circumstances.”
Like Wang and McMillen, Keen said that the discussions The Human Library promotes are even more critical after violent demonstrations by national white supremacist groups on Grounds and in Charlottesville this summer. He hopes the personal stories that the “books” share can promote respectful and thoughtful discussion among those who disagree, and he firmly believes that even the most challenging discussions will make the University community stronger.
“There are going to be times when new challenges arrive at the University, before we can even know what those challenges are,” Keen said. “We are in such a critical time right now, and one of the most helpful things we can do to prepare for those challenges is facilitate conversations like these.”