Fighting Prejudice With the Human Library Chicago

The Human Library is just like any other library except that the “books” are people, but this isn’t something out of Fahrenheit 451. These “books” come from groups that are often forgotten or in some cases discriminated against, with titles such as “Atheist,” “Feminist,” and “Bi-racial.” The way it works is you checkout a “book,” sit down with that person, and ask them any questions you want concerning their “story.”

The Human Library was created in 2000 by the organization Stop The Violence in Denmark as a way to break down prejudices and stigmas of certain marginalized groups. Originally a one-time event at the Roskilde Festival, it’s become its own organization and has factions in dozens upon dozens of cities across five continents, including a Chicago chapter which introduced itself at the Printers Row Lit Fest earlier this year. Discrimination and prejudice are ever-present whether they’re in or out of the media spotlight, and The Human Library is just one of many efforts to break down those prejudices.

I talked with Human Library Chicago director Marlena Johnson, who also works for a local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to learn more about the Human Library and how she became a part of it.

How did you first learn about the Human Library? What attracted you to the organization?

I first learned about the Human Library on a Chicago Public Library Tumblr. I found the organization’s website and the more I read, the more I imagined the great impact such an event could have on the public. I was first and foremost attracted to the concept put forth by the Human Library organization because I believe a huge component to breaking barriers is exposure. When people are exposed to other people who have different experiences and backgrounds and they are encouraged to learn about those different experiences, it fosters understanding and respect for that other person. As much as the Human Library uses labels in order to identify our “books,” it also encourages “readers,” or those who participate, to learn that this person is so much more than just that one aspect of their life or that one identity. It is my hope that participants in the Human Library are encouraged to challenge their own assumptions about others in their community.


In your own words, what is the Human Library’s ultimate goal?

The ultimate goal of the Human Library is to reduce stigma and discrimination in our community through promoting dialogue between individuals.


When was the first Human Library Chicago event? What was the response like?

The first Human Library Chicago event took place at Printers Row Lit Fest on June 7th & 8th earlier this year. It was a great way to introduce the Human Library to Chicago because of all the traffic from attendees of the Lit Fest. The response was amazing. We had over 100 people participate in the Human Library Chicago and many more interested in the concept itself. We even had some people who wanted to volunteer as “books” for our next event!


Was it difficult getting volunteers a.k.a. “books?”

It was definitely a challenge recruiting “books.” I spent three months prior to our first event posting on social media, searching through my network for potential volunteers, and posting flyers around the city of Chicago to recruit volunteers. The most challenging part was that this was the first event of its kind taking place in Chicago, so I was often introducing people to a novel concept. However, the people who did express interest in volunteering were amazing. In the end we had twelve volunteers. I could not have asked for a better group of “books” for our first event. Each one of them is an inspiration and I am so thankful that they had the courage and motivation to share their experiences with the public.


Did you see any change in people, from before they checked out a “book” to after? What were the responses like from the “book” borrowers?

I definitely think there was a change in those who participated in the event. Some people remarked that they had never before had a chance to meet with someone like our “books” and the conversation had opened their eyes to the experiences of someone they may never had encountered in their everyday life. The event definitely pushed the “readers” to consider a different perspective. One “reader” stated that they thought their “book” would be entirely opposite of them, but the more they talked with that “book,” the more they realized how much they had in common. The “books” themselves also stated they felt some change after the event. Some “readers” chose to share their personal stories with our “books” and the dialogue became so moving that I witnessed hugs after the conversation.

Are there any similarities between the work you do with the Human Library and what you do for the National Alliance on Mental Health?

Although my particular work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Chicago does not overlap much with the goals of the Human Library Chicago, an aim of NAMI Chicago is to challenge the stigmas that face people who suffer from a mental illness. Often, through my work with NAMI Chicago, I learn about the experiences of people suffering from severe mental illnesses — their struggles, their fears, but also their triumphs. In the same vein, Human Library Chicago also aims to reduce stigma and discrimination in our community by promoting dialogue between individuals that fosters understanding.


How has working for both organizations shaped you?

Working both for NAMI Chicago and the Human Library Chicago has encouraged me to appreciate the experiences of every person that I encounter. I’ve also developed a curiosity about people in general — what motivates them, their struggles, and their triumphs- rather than relying on my assumptions of what their experiences might be. It has also motivated me to fight against the systemic barriers that oppress members of our community. Until there is equal opportunity for every person within our community, we are not living the true American Dream.


What’s the best way for people to help out with the Human Library and spread the word?

The best way people can currently help the Human Library Chicago is to “Like” us on Facebook or subscribe to our e-Newsletter on our website at humanlibrarychicago.org. We are currently in the process of planning future events and, as soon as they are confirmed, will be posting and sending emails to recruit volunteers — both to be “books” and “librarians.” Additionally, if someone runs a venue that they believe could benefit from hosting a Human Library Chicago event, they can get in touch with me at marlena@humanlibrarychicago.org.

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