Borrow a Muslim? A 'living library' to prick stereotypes
In 12 countries, people check out people for a 30-minute conversation to challenge their own prejudices.
It works like a conventional library. Tables and chairs are set out for study. Librarians bustle purposefully, staffing the checkout desk.Skip to next paragraph
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Except these aren't books on loan. They're people.
Welcome to the Living Library. Here, you borrow individuals who represent stereotypes that often are the target of prejudice or hatred.
At this east London library on a recent Saturday, there were 26 "books" available, including a Muslim, an immigrant, a transgender individual, a witch, and an Indian atheist.
Readers borrow them for half an hour, hear their narrative, question them, even pry a little, and – so the theory goes – break down some of their preconceptions and stop "judging the book by the cover."
"We live in a time where we need dialogue," says Mr.
Abergel. "With dialogue comes understanding and with that comes tolerance and that's the mission of the Living Library: to promote understanding and tolerance through dialogue."
There is certainly plenty of dialogue at this London venue.
At one table, a Rwandan refugee explains to a listener why immigrants cannot be dismissed both as a drain on the public purse and a threat to local jobs. At another, a transgender individual relates why she felt biologically compelled to change sex. An Indian atheist and a Muslim are setting forth their worldview to "readers."
And those 'books' that aren't currently checked out – among them a witch, a funeral director, a medium and a police officer – are swapping stories in the back room, eating sandwiches, and waiting for their next appointment.
All of the "books" are unpaid volunteers, as are the organizers, recruited for the event.
Upon entry, readers can browse a list of available "books," then sign up for their "book" with volunteer librarians. On this Saturday, more than 50 people signed up, and some books were booked out almost the entire day.
"I've done this in 12 countries now," says Abergel, who has received funding from two organizations, the Council of Europe and the Nordic Council of Ministers. "In some places, I'll seed [the idea] and in some I'll put in the seeds and come back and pick the fruits. Here, I'm training someone to do it, helping with their first events."
The types of 'book' engaged vary from country to country. And the response from the public can be instructive. In Britain, for example, the Muslim and the ex-gang member are popular. In Hungary, it was the neo-Nazi, says Abergel. In some countries, homosexual 'books' are popular, but less so in a place like Britain, "because here you're more liberal and used to it."
"In Hungary, the first year, the homosexual didn't go out at all, because people didn't dare – and they didn't take the policeman either."
The concept is proving popular in Australia, Abergel says, with a regular Living Library session once a month in Lismore, New South Wales. "Turkey's just got up and running, and Germany and Austria are doing very well," adds Abergel, who says he has spent 50 percent of his spare time over the past eight years working on his project.