Human Library: Forming Community one “Book” at a Time

In September, the Human Library Champaign-Urbana had it’s inaugural event! Here are the experiences of the event and how it relates to libraries written by two of HLS’ writers. Nisha Mody is one of the organizers, and Jessica Colbert is one of the “books”.

Nisha – Organizer

Over the past five months, I co-founded and co-organized the Human Library Champaign-Urbana with, Sarah Christensen, a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Human Library is an international organization dedicated to breaking down barriers and allowing individuals that may have experienced discrimination or marginalization for an aspect of their identities to tell their story. Essentially, community members can “check out” a “book” and have a discussion about the book’s identity in a safe space.

So what does this really have to do with libraries and library school? The reason I decided to start this in Champaign-Urbana was because I volunteered with the Human Library Chicago, and I had very positive experiences at their events. I loved how it gave a voice to those that have had experienced oppression in their lives. The Champaign-Urbana chapter is sponsored by the University Library, however, it is meant to be community oriented. Some of the books are from students and faculty, but some are also from the community. Additionally, events are free and open to the public.

Last month, we had our first Human Library event during the Pygmalion Festival, a community-wide cultural festival in Champaign-Urbana, and it was a great success! We partnered with Pygmalion because they had the community clout, and it was during their Lit Fest which provided a lot of foot traffic and exposure for the organization.

My current goal is to work at an academic library. However, one large criticism of academic libraries is that they can be very elitist. Library research is mostly focused on academic institutions since many of the positions are tenure-track, and this can foster a divide between academic libraries and public libraries. This is why I do think it is supremely critical to bridge this divide in any way that we can and ground academic librarianship. The Human Library is just one way to build this bridge. I am also doing an Independent Study, focusing upon how such an event is beneficial for academic institutions. I will do a literature review and analyze the first event to make recommendations for future events.

As a student, this has been a very rewarding experience from many perspectives. First, I have come to learn how various levels of leadership within the library system and the university as a whole work by requesting funding, meeting with stakeholders at the library, and even from meeting with others in the community. It allowed a chance for me to better understand everyone’s interests and goals for participating in this event. This has been very beneficial for a number of reasons (1) It has provided me exposure and networking opportunities with the library system and community (2) When I interview for jobs, I can ask better questions about library organizational structures (3) If I want to do something like this again at a different site, I have the experience to do so (4) I am getting credit to use this as a research opportunity.

As we all know, libraries are not just about books. A lot of the time, what we do is work with people, create relationships, negotiate with vendors, conduct library outreach, and dispel the myth of library neutrality. There are a lot of ways to accomplish these goals. In library instruction, we can use feminist pedagogy. We can utilize queer theory while cataloging. My hope is that the Human Library Champaign-Urbana is an outreach tool which can also be viewed from a critical perspective and foster positive community interactions in an academic setting.


Co-organizers Nisha Mody and Sarah Christensen participating in the photo booth!


Jessica – Human Library Book

Nisha first contacted me about her interest in running a branch of the Human Library almost a year ago, and I was immediately interested! While at the student-run LIS conference BOBCATSSS, many posters and papers were on how successful this program is internationally. And I think it’s so important to create safe spaces for people to learn and have an open dialogue about oppressed or otherwise vulnerable groups, and in a way that those groups are not tokenized; each book volunteers to share their unique experience. I knew I wanted to be involved!

I figured the best way I could help would be to volunteer as a “book” in the human library. I am a lesbian as well as a first-generation college student, so I knew my experience could be one that would be helpful for people to hear. However, I thought people would be much more interested in my “title” of First-Generation College Student than my “title” of Lesbian. I feel like LGBTQ issues are so well-known lately that there would be little I could talk about that people would actually find enlightening; I know that each experience is different, but I still had to come out and worry about how my parents would react and all that jazz. I find my experience of navigating college without parental help or financial support way more interesting.

Color me surprised when many people “checked me out” and actually had serious questions, questions about how they could help their loved ones who are LGBT, questions about how they can help as allies. One thing this experience taught me from a library perspective is that you cannot make assumptions about the information needs of your patrons. You never know what somebody will need, or what will be helpful. You should never assume that people don’t have questions. You never know how you can change somebody’s life just by being authentic.

Because of this experience, I know I will approach the reference interview differently from now on. Taking classes and reading reference theory and all that tells you to never make assumptions about the information needs of your patrons, but that knowledge can so easily be forgotten or pushed to the

If you get the chance, find a way to participate in one of these events, or something else that can shake up your perspective as a librarian.

Jessica Colbert with two readers of the Human Library!

Jessica Colbert with two readers of the Human Library!

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