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Ponnada: Bring a Human Library to Iowa

BY SRI PONNADA | JANUARY 27, 2014 5:00 AM

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What’s your prejudice? All people have at least one stereotype that they religiously believe in — as silly and narrow-minded as it may be. Some of us are brave enough to admit our biases, and some of us choose to indulge in them secretly. Luckily, for those of us who want to move past our prejudice and become more understanding of the people around us, there is a fairly new and slightly strange way to do it: the Human Library.

The Human Library — which was conceived in Denmark more than a decade ago and has since migrated to academic establishments around the world, most recently to Rochester, N.Y. — is a sort of temporary library where visitors can check out “books” that are actually human beings who volunteered to be part of the catalogue and share their stories with whoever is interested in hearing them.

Pretty quirky, huh?

These “people on loan” come from all ages, sexes, and cultural backgrounds, and they have chosen to be public representatives of a certain group to which they belong. Visitors can check out a Living Book for approximately 30 to 45 minutes and take the “book” around the library but not outside the building or grounds.

The catalogue of Living Books includes a Muslim, a lesbian, an immigrant, an ex-gang member, a pot smoker, a Catholic priest, a diplomat, a communist, a Go-Go dancer, a Sikh, and many more. You can ask your Living Book pretty much anything, with respect of course. If the Living Book feels so inclined, he or she can choose to discontinue the loan and return to the library.

At first, I thought the entire thing was crazy. Humans aren’t books. Why can’t people just check out a book-book and find out what they want to know? Then, after exploring more about the Human Library, I began to realize what a clever and effective innovation it is.

Books have been around for centuries — so have biases. There are books about pretty much every stereotype out there. Yet, people are still living with enormous amounts of prejudice.

For instance, a poll by the Associated Press in 2012 showed that more than 50 percent of Americans hold anti-black attitudes — even after the United States had finally elected its first black president.
Exactly how much can books accomplish alone?

Many people don’t realize that their biases affect real, living human beings. Just as we make generalizations about objects to understand the world around us, we make generalizations about people under the assumption that we understand them. But objects aren’t people, and our generalizations about people aren’t simple generalizations. They become stereotypes. And somewhere along the line, we start viewing and treating those people like objects.

That’s where the Human Library comes in very handy.

By checking out a “book,” you are forced to interact with an actual human being. The stories that this “book” shares with you are real. Unlike when you are reading a book-book, you can have a dialogue with this one. You can ask it any question you want, and you can get powerful answers that may touch your heart and change your mind.

The Human Library is enabling groups to break stereotypes in a positive and fun way. You have to admit, it seems more exciting than watching a documentary on homophobia or writing a research paper on it, doesn’t it? And that might just be why this type of library has become so popular all over the world. Australia has even opted to have a permanent Human Library.

Maybe we should have some Human Library events here in Iowa. I’ve heard many students say they’ve never met a gay person, or a person of color, or a Muslim before they came to the UI. It would be a great opportunity for those students, as well as everyone else in our community to battle our biases.

As cliché as it may be, we could all use a reminder to never judge a book by its cover.


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