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Real people, real stories at the Living Library

Aleksandra Vidanovic Fri, 29 June 2018#HumanRightsMatter

I have always loved books and have never quit reading. Books have a power to pull me in, so that I could laugh, cry, get angry, get inspired. Somehow they helped me make some important decisions.

Something similar holds true for people. Throughout our life we meet different people, and hear different stories that, just like books, have the power to move us, stir and inspire, even scare us. In a way both people and books appear one and the same - some books feel almost alive and some people are like books. This is the main reason I fell in love with the Living Library.

The Living Library method is all about people who are books - people with stories about marginalisation, discrimination, stereotypes and prejudices. The whole thing works like a real library - a person can come and ‘rent’ a book and hear a real life story and face their own prejudices or learn something about a person with whom they never had a chance to talk or meet.

Living Books can talk to you and answer your questions. You can have a real dialogue with someone who was a victim of discrimination or who opposes and fights against human rights violations. Living Books are real people with real emotions and real stories, human beings who are willing to share them with others.

A wide impact

Since its creation by a group of young people from Denmark who wanted to stop violence in 2000, The Living Library has been adopted and adapted by the Council of Europe's human rights education programme. It has started to grow exponentially and spread around Europe. Living Libraries have been organised by human rights groups in various settings - during big music festivals, parliamentary assemblies, conferences, book fairs, in schools, in libraries, aboard boats, inside police stations…

This method has had a great impact in so many different contexts and with different groups of people, influencing people’s minds and attitudes. There are not too many opportunities to face your own stereotypes and half-baked ideas and address them in a safe and structured environment that the Living Library provides. 

Readers get acquainted with the Library rules and the designated time of reading, code of conduct towards Books (i.e. People) and the guidelines to behave respectfully. Books are also carefully selected. They are prepared to talk openly and respectfully and to feel comfortable in their role and in sharing their stories. It is important to maintain the atmosphere of safety, confidentiality and trust among everyone involved.

Empowering people

Many living Books come from vulnerable groups and backgrounds. The idea of the Living Library is not to re-traumatise them. Instead it aims to strengthen and enhance their ability to serve as a tool for building their self-esteem while helping others learn and get better themselves.

After organising over 50 Living Libraries in various settings and working with so many different living Books, and hearing their feedback and testimonials afterwards, I can only confirm that it was for almost all of them one of the most empowering experiences they had ever had.

They also learn from their readers and through each new reading they feel like they are becoming stronger. They learn from each other, having this amazing opportunity to feel like a part of a bigger family where they are not ‘ghettoised’ in their own marginalised group.

There are not too many situations where you have a homeless person sitting together with a rabbi and a lesbian, accompanied with a former sex-worker and an immigrant, talking animatedly about their lives and the prejudices they face. They are all laughing and crying and keeping each other hopeful and strong.

Building for change

After six years of l using this method I have witnessed a new foundation of friendships for life among the living Books. I have seen so many changed faces of people who came to ‘read’ out of curiosity and came out of the Living Library enlightened. It is important to note that this stimulating psycho-social intervention such as a Living Library does not change people’s personalities. The Library helps to shape peoples’ interface with the world or edit their life ‘narrative’. 

This action, if found conducive for the person who is involved can create recursive processes and lead to significant and life-enhancing personal change. Once people who are exposed to the Living Library and sit face-to-face with their prejudices, stereotypes and ‘unknowns’, the effect usually becomes more meaningful and larger over time with small changes at the beginning that tend to multiply over time.

We have found out that this marks a good start. And in the Europe of today and the world we live in we need to face our fears and biases while listening to the invisible people that surround us and hear their stories. It just may turn out that this is the ingredient that we are missing in order to build a healthier society where human dignity is a respected and accepted value while the ‘unknowns’ may actually be friends that we have not met, yet.

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