Mental Health

What is a ‘Human Library’ and how can it help with diversity and inclusion?

some books on a shelf in a traditional library

The human library invites readers to “borrow human beings serving as open books”. Image: UNSPLASH/Alfons Morales

Kayleigh Bateman
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Mental Health

  • More than 60% believe national divisions have worsened since the pandemic began.
  • The Human Library brings disparate people together with the aim of breaking down prejudices.
  • Originating in Denmark, the not-for-profit now has over 1,000 human ‘books’ available for loan.

We all love a good story. Narratives are a powerful communication tool and, used in the right way, can bridge divides.

But instead of interpreting someone’s tale from the printed word, what if you could hear it from them in person? What if you could ask a Holocaust survivor about their experience or challenge your own perceptions of eating disorders by speaking to someone who has one?

Now you can, using the Human Library, which invites readers to “borrow human beings serving as open books”.

Each ‘book’ represents a group that struggles with prejudice or stigma based on their lifestyle, beliefs, disability or ethnicity.

Tackling prejudice with science

Societal divides have reportedly widened during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 60% of people believe that national divisions have worsened since the pandemic began, according to a survey from Pew Research Center.

That shows how there has never been a better time to bring people together, a theme that’s echoed in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2022, which will be about ‘Working Together, Restoring Trust’.

It takes just three seconds for a person to decide whether or not they like you, or want to work with you, according to Jean Baur, a career coach and author of The Essential Job Interview Handbook. So how can we unpack our prejudices, biases and stereotypical judgments?

A longstanding line of research that aims to combat bias is called the “contact hypothesis”. According to this theory, contact between groups can help promote tolerance and acceptance when they are brought together under the right conditions.

Previous research has also indicated that getting people to engage with another's perspective for just 10 minutes can have long-lasting effects. For example, one study found that transphobia could be reduced through door-to-door canvassing, which encouraged people to imagine the world from a transgender person’s point of view.

The Human Library operates on the same principles.

How does the Human Library work?

The Human Library was created 21 years ago by Ronni Abergel, a Danish human rights activist and journalist, after he became interested in non-violent activism.

It now hosts events in over 80 countries and has more than 1,000 human books in circulation in more than 50 languages.

Each ‘book’ has a title, such as ‘Chronic Depression’, ‘Survivor of Trafficking’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Transgender’, ‘Black Activist’, to describe the experiences of the people they represent.

“I had a theory that it could work because the library is one of the few places in our community where everyone is welcome, whether you’re rich or poor, homeless or living in a castle, professor or illiterate,” Abergel said in an interview with CNN. “It’s truly the most inclusive institution in our time.”

The Human Library creates a safe space for people to engage, whether this is one-on-one or in small groups, to encourage people to “unjudge” a book by its cover. The library tailors its approach to each person’s biases and prejudices, instead of approaching diversity and inclusion with a one-size-fits-all solution.

“People want to have safe spaces to connect and maybe diffuse some of the tension in the air,” Abergel told CNN.

someone is writing on a chalkboard to raise awareness at the Human Library
The Human Library has a range of ‘human’ books with stories to tell. Image: The Human Library

Diversity and inclusion strategies

Last year, The World Economic Forum released its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, which aims to help companies utilize technology for the creation of workplaces that are fair, equitable and diverse.

“Successful organizations are powered by the diverse opinions, skill sets and life experiences of their employees,” Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum, said in a press release at the time of the launch.

“Ensuring racial justice, gender parity, disability inclusion, LGBTI equality and inclusion of all forms of human diversity needs to be the ‘new normal’ in the workplace set to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis and it is clear that technology can be leveraged to help rapidly make this a reality.”

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing to close the disability inclusion gap?

Have you read?
paint which reads 'unjudge' on a wall at the human library
A wall at the human library. Image: The Human Library
this homeless man is sharing his story at the Human Library
A homeless man shares his story. Image: The Human Library
The human library can tackle issues around disability.
The human library could prompt a discussion on disability. Image: The Human Library
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