Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

The Human Library

I love libraries. Growing up, I was a regular at our local library, and my college work-study job was in the library reserve room. This summer, I had the chance to visit one of the greatest libraries of all time: The Long Room at Trinity College Dublin. Built between 1712 and 1732, this two-story structure is an architectural masterpiece that transports you in time. And that’s just the building; then there are the books. It houses over 200,000 rare books, including the Book of Kells, an illuminated Book of Gospel from about 800 AD.

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It is not an exaggeration to say that I have spent thousands of hours sitting among library stacks. For all this experience, I have never heard of “The Human Library” until now. Unique among libraries, The Human Library, is literally a library of people that brings real people and their stories to the general public, challenging stereotypes and increasing understanding in a manner that can only be described as connecting us to our shared humanity.

1. What is The Human Library? Established in 2000 in Copenhagen by a handful of individuals working at a Danish Youth NGO, The Human Library is an international organization and movement that uses a library analogy of lending people rather than books. The ‘library of people’ represents historically marginalized and stigmatized members of society. These ‘human books’ voluntarily make themselves available to readers interested in engaging in conversation with people they wouldn’t normally cross paths with and who represent a group they have misunderstandings or misconceptions about, including individuals with mental health and substance use concerns. The inaugural event lasted four days, with eight hours of conversations each day, and drew over 1000 participants.

2. Getting Close and Uncomfortable. Brian Stevenson urges us to get close to those whose lives we do not understand to break through ignorance and stereotypes. This philosophy is at the core of The Human Library’s mission as well. After checking out their ‘human book,’ ‘readers’ are given an opportunity to ask them questions in an effort to learn about the other person and challenge their own prejudices. The Human Library aims to address people’s prejudices by creating a safe space for dialogue in which topics are discussed openly between ‘human books’ and their ‘ readers.’ The Human Library makes possible conversations in which difficult questions are expected, appreciated, and answered.

3. Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover. Individuals with mental health conditions and substance use disorders are often only seen as their illness or condition rather than as the full and complex people they are (as everyone is). The mental health concern claims to be the person’s title. The movement to use person-first language when talking about someone with a mental health condition attempts to reverse this stigmatizing, oversimplifying, and othering language. How different it sounds when I talk about my uncle to say, “my uncle was someone who lived with schizophrenia” compared to, “my uncle was a schizophrenic.” Through stories and conversation, The Human Library helps people learn about each other and move beyond judging people by their labels, or a book by its cover.

4. Books get Banned; People get Marginalized. Book banning is currently on the rise in the US. Books get banned or restricted for numerous reasons, often driven by fear and lack of understanding. In similar ways, individuals with mental health issues and mental illnesses are too often excluded and marginalized. In the workplace, few organizations have accommodations or supportive work programs, and most workers express concern about disclosing a mental health condition for fear that it will negatively impact their job security and career opportunities. Discrimination in the workplace against people with mental health issues can take the form of firing, being passed over for a promotion, or being forced to take time off. This is despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects against discrimination or harassment at work due to a mental health condition. The reality is that cultivating a culture of inclusion is something that government policy can support, but making it a reality rests with each of us.

5. Books are vehicles of learning and inspiration. People are as well. We have all had the experience of reading a book that changed us – a book that opened a whole new world; a book that we go back to because of the beauty of the story and the emotional connection we feel. It is in that same spirit of honest, intimate conversations with participants of The Human Library that the organization aspires to alter participants’ worldviews and fundamental understanding of themselves and others.

On the wall near the entrance to The Long Room at Trinity College Dublin is a quote by Jorge Luis Borges that reads, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I wholeheartedly agree. Traditional libraries and Human Library alike.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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