Many have heard the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. This is a common phrase that we’ve heard since childhood but we still find ourselves guilty of doing so. Nisha Mody, a lead organizer of The Human Library chapter in Urbana-Champaign, along with many others, are fighting against varying prejudices that still exists today.
The Human Library was first founded in Copenhagen Denmark in 2000, by Ronni Abergel, his brother Dany Abergel and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen. The idea is based on the traditional function of a library, however, instead of checking out books to learn about a subject of interest, you come in and speak to the people themselves. According to the Human Library Website, the project is intended to, “Build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.” The hope was that, by directly talking about issues with people who have experienced social issues first hand, there would be a better understanding among the community and a positive learning process for everyone. Sixteen years later, the project has spread internationally and has recently been established in the Urbana-Champaign area.
The project was declared a transformative experience, both, by the books and by the people “reading” them. Stepping into the event for the first time, one will immediately be captivated by the abstract and interactive execution of a library filled with an array of unique stories: An Air Force Veteran who was eager to share his experience in the military, a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder (BDP) offering her story to retaliate against the negative stigmas surrounding her disorder, and a man who is combatting the prejudice that comes with being both Black and Muslim in America. Another “book” that opened up at the library is Sarah, a mother who had a miscarriage earlier in her life. She found the experiences of women, especially regarding pregnancy, are often left unspoken about. Regarding her own experience, she said, “Luckily, I’ve done a fairly good job of grieving and moving through it, and in a positive way, because I wouldn’t have my daughter if I didn’t have the miscarriage, I would have had a different baby.... I’m okay with it today, I just want to provide a story for other women so that when they go through it, they don’t have as terrible of an experience as I did and to feel that they're not alone, that it is okay and they will get through it”.
A common fear of speaking out is being targeted by others or having one’s experience dismissed as invalid. Nisha Mody discusses this, saying, “I think the books feel most importantly that they are in a safe space to be able to share their story, share their identity, and how it’s affected them throughout their life with others when, maybe before, they have not always felt like they were in a safe space and felt like they could share these different parts of their life”. Mody is looking forward to continuing the project in the Urbana-Champaign area, assisting with the setup of the library every semester.
You can read more about books all over the world and future events planned by The Human Library.
*The views expressed in this report are the authors’ alone and are not necessarily shared by the “Hear My Voice…” organization or publications or the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.