What is a Human Library, anyway? – Tom Nevels

Tom Nevels
Tom Nevels Durham County Library

Think of it as a cross between your local library and speed dating. Instead of books, you get to check out other people.

And instead of crushing anxiety and a telephone number that will probably turn out to be fake anyway, you come away with a new understanding of a topic that you didn’t have before – and hopefully a closer connection to what makes us all more alike than not.

I first heard about The Human Library concept a few years ago on a public radio program. It was developed in 2000 in Denmark by young people seeking to encourage dialogue about violence. The original event was open eight hours a day for four days straight, and left all involved stunned. Since then, it has been presented in more than 70 countries around the world.

The concept of people sharing their own personal stories resonated with me. For 12 years, I had worked as a theater teacher, training students and teachers in design and performance. I knew that a clear point of view, shared well, can move audiences of thousands in a single instant. So, I filed The Human Library concept away in my mental filing cabinet as an interesting technique that might come in handy in my work as a teacher and moved on.

Then, on June 12, 2016, a young man walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and perpetrated the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in United States history. Members of my rainbow community and the country at large were stunned, saddened, and angry. The frustration was overwhelming. A former student messaged me and her question struck me deep in my bones: “What do we do?”

What, indeed? All the character education, magazine articles, celebrity appeals, and raw films of prejudice and gun violence hadn’t prevented this. The only honest answer I could muster with any conviction was: “You do what it is in you to do.” If you are a dancer, dance. If you are a nurse, give care. If you are a teacher, teach. But now, do it with intent – the intent to never let the differences between us ever grow into divides that make it seem that the life of the person on the other side is in any way worth any less than your own.

And that’s how The Human Library came back out of the mental files as a way for me to teach. A way for us to look at each other across the differences of religious beliefs, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, lifestyle, social status, political conviction, and health and disability.

Once permission to organize locally was granted from The Human Library Organization, I set to work securing volunteers and space. Thankfully, Jennifer Levine and the Durham County Library stepped forward as the perfect, willing host. As we’ve continued to reach out and build support for the event, I haven’t encountered a single person who thinks this isn’t a great idea (which is very reassuring for me, because sometimes my creative schemes can go a little sideways!).

I think that reaction speaks to the part in each of us that recognizes that same part in others. Perhaps with conversations such as those The Human Library facilitates, we can reconnect those parts and go about the work of mending our broken things together.


“The Human Library: Durham will be presented as part of the Durham County Library’s Adult and Humanities Programming from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at Southwest Regional Library, 605 Shannon Road.