CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You see the homeless person on the street or hear about the high school dropout. Perhaps your neighbor is a veteran or a single mother, or your co-worker is gay. You may make assumptions about them and their experiences, even if it is unintentional.
A project called the Human Library is designed to challenge stereotypes by bringing people together to talk. A newly formed Champaign-Urbana chapter of the Human Library will hold its first event Sept. 22 as part of the Pygmalion Festival.
The concept of the Human Library is that people who have experienced discrimination or who are part of a marginalized group volunteer to be “books.” Participants at the event are the “readers” who can “check out” a book and have a one-on-one conversation to ask questions and learn more about that person’s experiences.
“This invites people to learn,” said Nisha Mody, a University of Illinois graduate student in the School of Information Sciences who co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Human Library with Sarah Christensen, a visual resources and outreach specialist for the University Library.
You likely wouldn’t feel comfortable going up to someone and asking him or her about a disability, religious beliefs or a miscarriage, Mody said.
But the Human Library “provides a space for people who are volunteering and want to share their experiences. It’s a structured event designed for this purpose,” she said.
“(The books) are more than their title, and their title doesn’t have to represent everyone with the same title,” Mody said. “Also, it fosters a sense of community for people to get to know other people and the experiences they’ve had.”
Christensen said she and Mody believed the Human Library event was a great fit for the literature component of the Pygmalion Festival. The Human Library will be open from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sept. 22 in the lobby of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It is free and open to the public.
The 13 books will include a woman with a physical disability, a woman who dropped out of high school, an autistic man, a black man who is a Muslim, a man with an eating disorder and a female martial artist.
“We were looking for people who could speak to their experiences with confidence,” Christensen said. “We wanted to make sure that it will be a good experience all around for the book and the reader – (for the book), being able to talk about really personal experiences and being comfortable doing that, and for the reader, feeling like you’re learning something new and have made a connection with someone.”
Mody noted that some people who apply to be books are not from a group that traditionally has been marginalized. But when she volunteered for the Chicago chapter of the Human Library before coming to Champaign-Urbana, she found that even people who aren’t from a marginalized group can have a story to tell about being stereotyped.
“It’s a fine line between what’s marginalized and what people don’t know about that’s different,” Mody said. “We all have preconceived notions of what people might be. I feel like we both learned a lot just through our interviewing (of applicants).”
The books have suggested questions to get a conversation started with their readers. And the readers will be reminded that they are to ask questions respectfully and have a meaningful conversation, not debate or antagonize, Christensen said.
She and Mody hope to organize a Human Library event each semester, perhaps at a public library.