How to Host a Human Library
Drag Queen. Refugee. Bipolar. Retired military. These are examples of titles on a very different type of bookshelf at a Human Library event. The Human Library nonprofit created this global learning experience in 2000 to facilitate dialogue between community members with unique experiences who might not otherwise cross paths. Volunteers with a variety of lived experiences offer to share their time and stories, which often include challenges such as confronting stigma and discrimination. Visitors to a Human Library event can choose from a selection of topics, "check out" their human book, and then have a conversation, typically lasting from 30 minutes to one hour.
For information and first-hand experience about planning and implementing a Human Library, check out the WebJunction webinar, Promote Community Engagement and Challenge Prejudice with a Human Library. There is also a learner guide (doc) that can be a useful resource after viewing the webinar to help extend your learning on the topic. The learner guide offers helpful tips and reflective questions to think about and discuss, alone or with others, as you decide if hosting a Human Library makes sense for your library.
In the webinar, Lisa Thornell, Rebecca Hass, and Monica Powell shared strategies that helped them create successful Human Library programs in their respective libraries. Lisa Thronell (Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian at DiMenna-Nyselius Library, Fairfield University, CT) said that the planning process took about five months for her library. Some highlights from her planning timeline include:
- Four to five months in advance: choose a date, submit application to the Human Library organization, review materials, recruit community partner organizations
- Two months in advance: begin recruiting books, book signup, provide participant training
The Human Library organization charges a small fee for libraries that want to host an event. They also offer planning materials, host training, and access to logos and other marketing materials, which can be helpful for smaller libraries or groups that don’t have access to marketing resources.
Collaboration with community partners can help increase engagement including connections to more people interested in serving as books for the event. Potential partner organizations include other libraries, churches, and local social service agencies and advocacy groups. This Cincinnati Magazine article gives an example of a successful partnership between the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library and partner groups the Regional Coalition Against Hate and Community Happens Here.
After finding community members to serve as volunteer books, all volunteers should undergo training (offered through the Human Library organization) to help cultivate a safe space for dialogue.
Also worth noting is that Human Library events can be offered in both in-person and virtual formats. Logistics and issues such as privacy, photography policies, and press presence should be considered for each format.
An important factor in implementing a Human Library program is assessment. You can create a short and simple survey for event participants (including both the books and readers) to fill out about their experience at the event. The survey responses shared convey a meaningful sense of connection at the DiMenna-Nyselius Library event:
“My most important takeaway from this has been that just by being me I have not only the power, but the responsibility to inform others, and to change people's minds. So many of the people I spoke to wanted to know how they could be allies, and how they could use their privilege to make a difference. I have never felt more affirmed, or more sure of my identity, even in a community like this one where it's so easy to feel isolated.”
“I realized that opening myself up and having discussions with other people is really important for my own well being.”
“Unbelievable experience battling my own stereotypes.”
After the event is over, there are still a few more items on your agenda. Make sure you have given participants another chance to fill out surveys so you can review the data and hold a debrief meeting with the event/project staff. This is a good time to consider what went well and what you might like to do differently next time. You might also consider writing a blog post or social media post to share a recap of the event.
For more inspiration, the Daviess County (KY) Public Library's Promo video and Reaction video for their Human Library are great ways to share an overview of the program and how it worked for one library’s community. With planning and collaboration, a Human Library can help build connections in your community, too.
Host your own Human Library
For more strategies and stories about Human Library programs, check out the full webinar, which can be watched anytime. The webinar page also features the full slide deck, learner guide, and the chat so you can review all the ideas shared in the live session.
- Promote Community Engagement and Challenge Prejudice with a Human Library—WebJunction webinar (2022)
- 3 Ways Libraries Can Channel Understanding in Confusing Times—WebJunction (2016)
- Community Partnership and Collaboration Guide—WebJunction resource
- Human Library website
- Book of the Month: Wheelchair User—Human Library website (November, 2022)
- Human Libraries: Turning the Page on Discrimination—ALA Magazine article (2020)
- ‘Unjudge Someone’: Check Out a Living, Breathing ‘Book’ At The Human Library—Cincinnati Magazine article (2022)