Check out "S" for stereotypes at the Living Library
It works like a conventional library. Tables and chairs are set out for study. Librarians bustle purposefully, staffing the checkout desk...
The Christian Science Monitor
LONDON — It works like a conventional library. Tables and chairs are set out for study. Librarians bustle purposefully, staffing the checkout desk.
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."
The idea is the brainchild of Ronni Abergel, a Danish anti-violence campaigner, who has taken the Living Library to 12 countries and watched it flourish in places as diverse as Australia and Turkey.
"We live in a time where we need dialogue," Abergel said. "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 checked out — among them a witch, a funeral director, a medium and a police officer — are swapping stories in the backroom, 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," said Abergel, who has received funding from 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, Abergel said.
"The next big move in the fall here is to start a tour in the States," he says. One date in Fort Wayne, Ind., is inked in and others are interested..
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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