The Human Library

Posted on March 13, 2023


Instagram is Life in the Boomer Lane’s social media platform of choice. Lots of photos/videos, few words (unless necessary), and, for LBL, the ability to follow the work of whomever artists she chooses. But, at the risk of getting carried away with culture, here. LBL will say that she also follows her favorite fashion brands and food magicians (even though she rarely cooks). She lets her friends back on Facebook detail their travels and new hairstyles and pronouncements about how great (a new grandchild/puppy) and/or terrible (the current political climate/an unwarranted traffic ticket) life is. LBL knows that life can be mighty great or mighty terrible, depending on whether she is Facetiming with grandchildren or watching CNN or notes that she is down .2 lbs or can’t find some of the documents she needs to get her taxes together.

Every once in awhile, LBL sees something on Insta that cuts through all the noise. This morning it was a piece about the Human Library, begun in Copenhagen, 25 years ago. For those single or soon-to-be-single Loyal Readers whose antenna have just perked up, this is not a place where one can peruse possible mates and check them out for up to 21 days to give them a test run, although LBL believes that would be an outstanding and hugely profitable business to consider. This is, instead, a library of real human connection, one in which humans in varying categories volunteer to “lend” themselves out to folks with a sincere desire to get to know them for 30-minute intervals of time.

The human subjects includes those with emotional and physical disabilities, transgender, the homeless, and on and on and on. As the Human Library says, The Human Library® is, in the true sense of the word, a library of people. We host events where readers can borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to. Every human book from our bookshelf, represent a group in our society that is often subjected to prejudice, stigmatization or discrimination because of their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin etc.

It’s an astonishing concept, right? Giving people the ability to actually interact with others who society is often quick to dismiss and/or attack, without actually having an experience of those people. She is reminded of all the ranting neo-cons now who are getting their panties in a twist over wokeness and critical race theory. When pressed to define those terms, they can’t. All they know is that, like any two warring species in LBL’s grandson’s “Who Would Win?” book series, it’s bad, real bad.

Most of us have learned over the decades of life we have been gifted with, that humans, since the dawn of humankind tend to demonize that which they aren’t familiar with or don’t understand. We have perfected this ability to a fine art. But sometimes, just sometimes, when confronted with a real-life version of something we are against, we do have the ability to change our minds.

Dick Cheney, the Svengali VP of the Baby Bush administration and arch-conservative, was a preview of all of the dastardly things we are dealing with now, in this New Age Conservative World. Except for one thing. Dick Cheney had a daughter who was gay. Mary Cheney has been with her wife, Heather Poe, since 1992. After an epic internal explosion in the Cheney family, Cheney came to voice support for same-sex marriage. He has continued to do so, even after leaving office. His other daughter Liz, a famous staunch conservative, now admits she was wrong to oppose same sex marriage. There is no magic to any of this this. The only thing that influenced both father and sister was a real-time experience of a gay person. Mary became a human being to them, as opposed to a political abstraction that grated on their bedrock conservative beliefs.

Most of us don’t have family members who fit into any of these marginalized categories. And, even if we do know specific people who do, we seldom sit down with them and talk about these things. LBL’s Aunt Gert was in therapy for all of her adult life and was hospitalized on more than one occasion. For many years, LBL lived down the street from her. She knew Aunt Gert almost as well as she knew her parents. Yet, LBL never talked to her aunt about mental illness.

The Human Library is so much more than giving a people a chance to connect with those who society would like to ignore. It’s an example of what can be done across the chasm of gender identification, of religious and political belief, of racial and ethnic stereotypes, as well of the stereotype of caste in this country. Of course, that couldn’t be done without a sincere desire to actually listen, without the usual unconscious bias that we all carry around us. That. in itself, is a huge requirement, one that not many people would be capable of.

There is now a Human Library in New York, as well as in San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Muncie, Fort Wayne,Washington DC. It is also in Paris, the UK and elsewhere. There may be others forming, as well. Some are more organized than others. Some operate as special events, rather than on an everyday basis. But the idea is growing, the tiny little idea that can, if not change the world, at least change our perception of that world. As the Human Library tag line goes, “Unjudge someone.” It’s a pretty epic idea.

Posted in: commentary