The renowned Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library”.
For ages, libraries have been seen as repositories of knowledge and learning — though these are traditionally associated with books, it is not a limitation anymore. Take for instance, the Library of Things, which started in London and has made its way to other countries — it is a library of everyday household items. Or the Human Library where stories from books are replaced by human experience, that have spread around the world, including India.
A group of students in Hyderabad are spearheading the Human Library movement in their city, hoping to bring about a change in society through community stories.
Harshad (centre) with the Human Library Hyderabad team. Source: Facebook
The concept of the Human Library was developed in Copenhagen by Ronni Abergel, along with his brother and colleagues — all part of a youth movement named Stop the Violence. The attempt was to utilize ‘human books’ in an attempt to challenge stereotypes and motivate people to understand and empathise better through shared stories. The original event held in Copenhagen in the year 2000 was held over two days and featured 50 titles. The movement has spread to over 70 countries, and even led to the formation of a permanent library in Australia.
“In India, the first Human Library event was held at Indore (in November 2016 at the IIM Indore campus). Hyderabad is the second city to have this event, and we are getting ready for our next event this April,” says Harshad Fad, founder of Human Library Hyderabad, for whom the idea brought about a life-changing experience.
“I came across a meme about the Human Library on Facebook and it really intrigued me,” he says. “It also reminded me of my own prejudices towards certain people and how having a conversation with them changed my mind.” A student of media management at Annapurna International School of Film & Media, he roped in friends and peers to organise the event with him and find the suitable human books for their first outing.
“We decided to start with the titles (of the human books), about 10-15 of them, and after that we researched the topics further,” he says. “We screened the human books and they had to fill up a form and register with the Human Library website.” About 12 or 13 books were chosen and eventually, 10 human books were included in the catalogue for the debut event.
The first human library event in Hyderabad was held at Phoenix Arena, an arts space in Hi-tech City, in March this year.
The first catalogue of human books. Source: Facebook
During the event, readers were asked to check the catalogue and take their pick of of title (shared earlier on social media pages). Each human book could be checked out for a period of 20 minutes, and readers were encouraged to ask questions and have an intimate conversation with their books.
The first catalogue of books is small, but the founding team has attempted to make the list as versatile as possible. Among the available titles are A Man’s Journey to the Epitome of Grace, the experiences of a male dancer who impersonates as a woman; Chains of Freedom, the tales of a traveller who wants nations freed of borders and Life in Olive Green, the stories of an army man.
Sharing their stories can be cathartic for narrators, but more importantly the right story can change a listener’s mind. For Aditya Raja, an LGBTQ activist community in Hyderabad and a human book titled Self-Loathing Narcissist, it was an opportunity to engage in a constructive conversation about the queer community.
He says, “I was checked out five times, and we exceeded our assigned period every time. People had many questions, and it helped me understand their perspective as well. Yes, there were people who were homophobic but I asked them their reasons and explained them my reasons. One of the main reasons for discrimination against the queer community is the lack of awareness and understanding. But an event like this, and calling people books, can help to get a conversation started.”
The first event was attended by close to 100 people. According to Harshad, the response was even better than the team had initially expected and overwhelmingly positive.
In their next event, slated for this month, the founders are aiming to increase their catalogue to 25 books.
The human books from the first event. Source: Facebook
Increasing the depth of the catalogue is the founding team’s primary goal at the moment, and they are happy to accommodate unconventional stories and include individuals whose lives are often marginalised and suppressed. “Anyone with a story to tell is welcome here,” say the founders.
“It’s easier telling your story to strangers who don’t judge you,” says Rachel Lewis, a human book titled Of Dreams and Desires. “There was a lot of curiosity and people had many questions. But it was a very nice experience — a lot of people listened to our stories and came out with their own experiences, as they tried to find common ground with us. People lead such interesting lives and I hope more people join to tell their stories.”
The need for shared narratives is urgent in these times of differences and tough struggles and can make a crucial difference. As Harshad says, “Conversation is an important means to education. In India, it can truly help to bridge the gap between people and communities.”