Developed in Denmark in 2000, the Human Library® is designed to provide participants with a positive framework from which conversations that challenge stereotypes and prejudices can take place. The concept is simple: human volunteers become “books,” and curious “readers” spend 20 minutes with subjects asking questions and participating in a frank dialogue intended to make an unfamiliar story more understandable.
In November, Stony Brook’s first-ever Human Library took place, giving more than 100 “readers” a chance to ask questions of 13 members of the Stony Brook community, representing a range of diverse areas including ethnicity, lifestyle, sexual orientation and health status.
Janet Clarke, associate dean of research and user engagement at Stony Brook University Libraries, saw a presentation on the Human Library at a conference in 2019. “It clicked with me instantly about how powerful this could be,” said Clarke. “It’s so important to create a safe and supportive space where people can be vulnerable. These interactions are one-on-one, very intimate, and very real.”
Clarke noted the distancing facilitated by social media and felt it important to rebuild human connections, especially on a college campus. Unfortunately, just as discussions of a Human Library event at Stony Brook began, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the initiative was shelved as other challenges took priority. This past October, another barrier arose when the Israel-Hamas war broke out.
“One of our ‘books’ was a Muslim and we thought, ‘what can happen here? How are we going to handle this,” said Clarke. “We all had some trepidation. We’re talking about real people and real experiences. We didn’t want this to be a negative experience and we didn’t want to open the door to a disrespectful interaction.”
Clarke and her team decided that for that very reason, Human Library was needed now more than ever. The resulting event saw 13 volunteers generously share their life stories, and 30 volunteer “librarians” from all over campus helped manage the event, which took place in the Melville Library. It was sponsored by University Libraries and the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility (DEIA) Team within the Division of Student Affairs, Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Intercultural Initiative (DI3), Office of Military and Veteran Student Services, and Diversity, Intercultural, and Community Engagement (DICE).
Usama Shaikh, assistant chief diversity officer in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, was among those who volunteered to serve as a “book,” sharing his experience as a Muslim after coming to America from Pakistan with his family at age 14.
“I lived through the Gulf War as a high school student and all of a sudden people became more interested in Muslims,” he said. “I think a lot of the misinformation out there regarding Muslims is just based on lack of knowledge and lack of access to members of the community.”
Cheryl Chambers, associate dean of Student Affairs, also volunteered to be a “book,” sharing her story of growing up in a working class African American family in 1960’s New York.
“Each of my parents migrated from the south in the 50s during the ‘Great Migration’, met in New York and got married,” she said. “I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Queens. The neighborhood was experiencing what sociologists call ‘white flight,’ as many who chose not to live in integrated communities moved into the Long Island suburbs.”
Chambers said she attended school just after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and was bussed into white school districts as integration efforts got underway.
“We went to grade school (K-12) in predominantly white neighborhoods that had better schools, better homes, and more community resources,” said Chambers. “It’s interesting looking back, but it also was painful at times because children can be cruel. As children, we were all learning about classism and socioeconomic stratification.”
She credits her parents with giving her a better understanding of her world, and the tools that would help her succeed in it.
“My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father delivered gas to homes,” Chambers said, adding that in the south, they both witnessed Jim Crowism, but never lost sight of the dream of having better opportunities. “So they saw in their children opportunities that they did not have, and they also instilled in us the importance of persevering. This was a foundation that they laid with me and my siblings.”
Chambers added that addressing the challenges society faces today begins with programs like Human Library, where stories of diversity can be shared. “This provides a rich exchange where there can be learning about one’s lived experience,” she said. “This opens the door for empathy, understanding and humanity.”
Shaik also noted the importance of sharing individual ideas and stories.
“What I love about this entire concept is that as human beings we have questions about folks that have identities that you don’t share or know much about and you want to ask some pointed questions, but you don’t want to come across as insensitive or ignorant,” he said. “In this space you are given the access to just be inquisitive. I’m not judging you. I’m intrigued that you are sitting here and I’m interested to hear what questions people have because that helps me do my job – which centers around diversity, equity and inclusion – better.”
“Readers” also came away with a clearer view of the experiences of others.
“I didn’t have many expectations going in, but I thought it was a cool concept and decided to check it out,” said Julia Parsons, a freshman studying civil engineering. “It was a great way to gain more perspective about people and their different experiences, and establish a more personal relationship with them.”
“It allowed people from so many backgrounds and experiences to share their stories, and to be seen, heard and understood, and it allowed participants like me to see the world through their eyes,” said SBU employee Ellen Cooke. “Opportunities like this make me proud to work here and connect with so many diverse and fascinating people.”
“We took a lot of care in creating a safe and judgment-free space for the event,” said Clarke. “A lot of volunteers pitched in and set the ground rules for respect. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. Everyone treated this event with respect, curiosity, and care.”
— Robert Emproto