Library with a difference: How conversations help foster positivity

The human library is a place where one gets to interact with “human books” and learn from their life journeys

Depression had taken hold of Saroja (name changed), a victim of domestic violence, that she had even contemplated committing suicide to end the suffering. However, after sharing her life experiences with a group of empathetic people, she is a changed person now. She now wants to fight the odds, come what may, and live for her children and for herself. This transformation was possible thanks to a unique social initiative called “Human Library” started by a Harshad Fad, a social activist in Hyderabad.

Library with a difference

The human library is a place where one gets to interact with “human books” and learn from their life journeys that epitomise triumph of human spirit over adversities, prejudices and biases. The “authors” are people who tell the stories of their lives to the visitors of the library, the odds they had faced and how they struggle to overcome them.

Like a conventional library, it has a catalogue which gives snapshots and titles of “human books” and what kind of journey they represent. The visitors can seek an appointment with the “human book” of their choice through the librarian who will then arrange the interaction. It’s a framework that creates a positive environment that allows people to challenge prejudices and stereotypes through dialogue.

The concept of Human Library is similar to that of a traditional library. The only difference is that the books are replaced by humans here and reading by conversation.  Books at this library are people who have overcome social stigma, stereotypes, and prejudices, sharing their stories through conversations.

The subjects range from survivors of gender violence, sexual abuse, domestic violence and depression to single parents, divorcees, transgenders and those pursuing unusual careers.

Overwhelming response

“Our mission is to create a platform for a two-way interaction on a range of social stigmas, prejudices and biases that our diverse society presents. No book can ever give you the kind of learning experience that you get from interacting with people who have gone through tough journeys and survived to tell their tales,” Harshad, a 26-year-old enthusiast in theatrics, filmmaking and media business, told The Federal.

“Overall, we have 72 Human Books in the catalogue today. Apart from the city events, we have also been conducting regular events in colleges to reach out to the youth,” said Harshad.

It now has 16 chapters across the country including Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Bengaluru, Indore, Kolkata and Patiala. The plan is to see that over the next couple of years, every major city and town in India will have a Human Library.

“We are launching a similar initiative in Maharashtra’s Nashik soon. The response to all the events has been very enthusiastic. More satisfying has been the impact that this movement has managed to create on a practical level, where people coming to read the Human Books have left with a better understanding of varied lifestyles and social groups in the society,” he said.

“With around 72 Books, more than 7,800 readers and after fostering more than 3,500 conversations challenging stigmas and stereotypes, I believe we have made the task look easier,” the theatre enthusiast says.

How it began

The first human library started in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000. It is an international organisation that aims to challenge prejudice against social contact among people. The Human Library is designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue. It is a place where real people are on loan to readers.

It was an effort that stemmed from a movement called ‘Stop the Violence’, which aimed at ending violence by encouraging dialogue and building positive relations among the youth through sharing experiences.

Human Library, Hyderabad, is a part of the Human Library Organisation, which is a global movement that is spreading its wings across the world from Toronto to Perth, reaching more than 70 countries

“I came across the concept while browsing the internet in 2016. I strongly felt that it should be replicated in India. The first Human Library event in India was conducted at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore in November last year. By then, I had already begun the work to set up the Human Library in Hyderabad. The goal of this event-based programme is to help people appreciate others’ differences, understand social barriers by listening and relating to their experiences,” Harshad said.

The Hyderabad chapter was opened in March 2017 and it now has 72 “human books” who represent the fight against specific social stigmas and prejudices. “We want to build a positive platform where people, through their life stories, challenge the stigmas and biases that exist in our society. And, thereby provide an inspiration to others,” Harshad says.

“The human books in our library are the ones who have experienced prejudice due to issues such as race, sex, age, disability, sexual preference, gender identity, class, religion, lifestyle choices or other aspects of who they are. The people who visit, borrow these books, have a conversation with them and leave with a widened perspective on different social groups in our society,” he says.

The “Human Library” is a social start-up with no business goals, no revenues to be earned or profits to be made. It is just a group of volunteers driven by a common passion.

“We are now reaching out to as many young people as possible by organising campus events once a month. The response has been overwhelming. There are certain problems peculiar to the younger generation including exam stress, anxiety and depression that need to be discussed openly,” the activist said.

Instant recognition

Within a few weeks of starting the Hyderabad chapter, India’s first, the idea caught the imagination of people across the country, thanks to the discussion forums in the social media. There was an instant recognition of its potential in a diverse society like India.

“Typically, 200 to 600 people attend our events where human books share their experiences with visitors in groups,” he explained.

“There were many instances where people come to us to tell how their interaction with the human books have changed their world view and how they are now looking at life with a different perspective,” Harshad recalls. “After one such event on ‘gender conundrum’, a college girl walked up to us and told us that she used to heckle transgenders and mock at their conduct. But, after listening to the life story of a transgender at the event, she was a changed person,” he said.

Harshad, who completed Masters programme in media business administration from Annapurna International School of Film and Media here, worked as a community manager at Kahaniya.com, an online publishing start-up. “I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey of setting up this Human Library and the most exciting part was to find the right human books representing the issues that we wanted to highlight at our events,” he says.

The event expenses are taken care of through sponsors. “We are constantly receiving invites from various art and cultural venues in the city to conduct the Human Library event at their premises for free,” Harshad says.