Lynchburg’s “Human Libraries” Unite Pages and People

University of Lynchburg brings together storytellers from the area to share, learn and innovate.

Libraries are known as places of silence, solitude and literature, but on Sept. 5, the University of Lynchburg’s library gave its patrons a different kind of reading experience.

The library held an event called Human Library, where, instead of paper books, students and staff at University of Lynchburg could “check out” the stories of living, breathing people.

Haley Lott, an Outreach/Public Services Librarian at the University of Lynchburg, had participated in a Human Library before and thought it would be a perfect fit for a library event.

“(A Human Library) incorporates library and diversity and inclusion pretty seamlessly,” Lott said. “It’s a program that already existed, so it could be adapted to fit here pretty easily, and I think it’s just a fun time, so I thought our students would enjoy it.”

Human Library is an international organization that, according to their website, “build(s) a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue.”

Lott calls it a “low-stakes, high-impact” event. Students, faculty and staff walk in to the library during the event and pick a title that interests them, such as So I Became a Chameleon, or Blind but Normal, two titles from the Sept. 5 event. Then the reader is led to a private room where the “book,” someone who has volunteered to share their story, is waiting.

The books and readers spend approximately 15 minutes together, during which time the reader asks questions and the book tells their story. People volunteered to be books because they felt they had a story to share, according to Aaron Smith, a diversity and inclusion officer at the university.

“Everybody’s story matters,” Smith said. “Every book that’s on the shelf in the library matters, and I think on both sides — whether you were the listener or the book — people felt that.”

This is the second Human Library the university has held, and the turnout was better than expected, according to Smith. Ten people volunteered to be human books, and about 50 people attended as readers. At one point, Lott stepped in as an extra book because all the volunteer books were “checked out” and more interested readers continued to flood the library.

“Getting 50 people who might not normally be in a library to come to the library for an event about diversity and inclusion, which everybody doesn’t really want to talk about either — that’s pretty good,” Smith said.

Some of the most surprising stories came from the readers, not the books. Lott recounted the story of a reader who attended the event for class credit, but they after checked out a human book, the student signed up to volunteer at the next event.

“The people who come in as readers then realize that they have a story that they want to share as well,” Lott said.

According to Lott, the Human Library is cathartic for both the book and the reader. The reader gets to ask questions without fear of judgement, and the book gets to share their story with someone who is genuinely interested in what they have to say. Lott said she hopes this event allows students to feel freer to ask questions and learn about each other.

“We get so wrapped up and worried about if we’re going to offend somebody with a question,” Lott said. “We’re afraid to really connect, (so we) kind of avoid that situation altogether.”

For Abby Lowery, an information literacy librarian, hearing the story of a student who is vision impaired was a powerful experience.

Lowery had met the student once before and helped him navigate campus, but she had never asked him about his vision impairment until she “checked out” his story at the Human Library. The courage of the volunteers impacted Lowery, who said she wishes she had been able to listen to more than one book during the event.

“These students are so brave to share their stories, and to come in having no idea who’s going to come and ask them questions,” Lowery said. “They’re opening themselves up to who knows what… I was not that bold when I was that age.”

Lott said she hopes the Human Library will continue to be a regular event on campus, and maybe even spread to the Lynchburg community. Diversity and inclusion are trademarks of the Human Library event, and Lott wants to see those qualities at the University of Lynchburg.

“It’s all about sharing diverse stories,” Lott said. “And Lynchburg is a great place with great people… so we want to take advantage of that and share that with our students.”

Lowery said she liked that the Human Library event combined the best parts of library and community to benefit the students.

“The library traditionally is supposed to be a place for all people,” Lowery said. “We don’t discriminate against information, we don’t censor things here. I like that we were able to host a program like that here because it definitely fits in with library code of ethics.”

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