When Chris Langley volunteered to help out with a project at his university library last year, he didn’t imagine he’d wind up becoming a book. The 25-year-old master’s student was intrigued by the notion of a human library, a space in which prospective readers scheduled half-hour time slots with real people and engaged in direct conversations about prejudice.
As an atheist, Langley felt his views and experience could help fill a niche in the library’s catalogue and immediately put himself into circulation. The last-minute addition proved a popular attraction, with all but one of his available time slots filling up over a two-day stretch. The atheist book was back on shelves for the 2010 edition of the human library, which began Thursday at the University of Guelph. The man behind the cover is keen to re-engage with readers on an issue he feels is often misunderstood. “The prejudice I feel is invisible. It’s more a stigma attached to the label,” Langley said in a telephone interview from the university campus. “We’re thought of as evil, callous and even shallow.”
Readers who check out Langley’s book will not be subjected to a lecture about the virtues of his personal religious choice, he said. Readers are strongly encouraged to come with questions and engage him in conversation on spiritual matters of every ilk. “Last year, readers were curious about how I can view the world without a supernatural power, how I cope when I lose loved ones, how I cope without an afterlife,” he said, adding he was checked out by everyone from pro-life evangelists to believers in religions he’d never heard of.
Michael Boterman, another one of last year’s literary offerings, experienced a similarly diverse range of dialogues during his stint on library shelves. As a book entitled “Living with HIV,” the 50-year-old campus staff member attracted a wide readership whose reactions to his ailment ranged from curiosity to fear. Boterman said the conversations gave him a chance to combat widespread ignorance on the subject and influence commonly held attitudes. Some of the people that came and read my book would show a lot of pity. I’ve had this condition longer than most of my readers have been alive. That kind of made them stop and think about that,” he said.
Guelph staff member Lisbeth Sider had her preconceived notions challenged last year when she checked out a book entitled “Sri Lankan Conflict Survivor.” Expecting to hear harrowing tales of domestic terrorism, Sider instead listened to accounts of rebels who treated those on the opposing side with relative kindness despite their profound political differences. “It’s not all black and white,” she said. “You expect one thing and when you come out of it the reality is something very different.”
Such shifts in perspective are what the human library is all about, according to Mike Ridley, the university’s head librarian. By bringing in books who were willing to engage in candid conversations on difficult subjects, organizers strove to turn the library into a place where taboos were cast aside and meaningful engagement was promoted among members of the campus community and beyond.
Last year’s event, which attracted 163 readers and 32 human books, proved the strategy was working, he said. “There were all these people having really intense conversations about sometimes very difficult things,” Ridley said. “Libraries are all about helping users make sense of the world. Here was an event where users were making sense of the world just by talking.”
The two-day event has expanded this year, with 376 slots available for the 36 books on offer. Members of the campus community and general public are invited to browse the collection which includes titles such as “Dykes & Tykes: A Tale of Lesbian Motherhood,” “Female Race Car Driver,” “Living With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” and “Transsexual Guy.”
The Canadian Press