Photos by Andrea Beck

Walking into the Chicago Human Library is a different experience each time. For one thing, unlike brick-and-mortar libraries, it doesn’t have any consistent location. You’ll find books and readers inside, and maybe even a catalog of the books available to check out, but you won’t see any shelves or rows of titles to walk through. Once you check out a book, “reading” it doesn’t involve flipping pages and staring at paper and ink; instead, you’ll find a quiet corner and sit down for a conversation with one of the library’s human “books.”

The Human Library was first created in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000, but soon spread all over the world. Today, Human Libraries across the globe host events featuring volunteer “books” with titles such as “Unemployed,” “Refugee,” “Polyamorous,” and thousands more. Visitors to the events (“readers”) can check out any “book” that interests them and have a 20- to 30-minute conversation with their chosen title to learn more about their life experience.

The Human Library aims to create positive conversations between people who might not otherwise meet, and to challenge the stereotypes participants’ might hold. Each event is an opportunity for both books and readers to learn about each other, and to understand what may be an entirely new point of view. “It’s an event where you hear the stories of individuals in the community, and it can really be anybody [that] can share their story. And that’s powerful,” says Marlena Johnson, the founder of the Chicago Human Library.

Creating the Chicago Human Library

Though there are Human Library events to visit all over the Midwest (and all over the country), the Chicago Human Library is one of the most established. Founded in 2014, the Chicago Human Library hosts four to five events per year with a wide variety of volunteer books. Its first event in 2014 was a huge success, attracting over 100 readers. “It was such an amazing event, and our books wanted to volunteer again and again, [so] it sort of just took off from there,” Johnson says. “It’s something that the Chicago community really wants.”

“I think that that is what makes the Human Library so powerful. Yes, the title of those books is a starting point, but people typically learn so much more about the person than just about their identity.” —Marlena Johnson

“I think the goal of the Human Library is to push past those identities that we are all ascribed in our society. I think that most people can’t take their identities off, they can’t be separated from who they are, but they can, through these conversations, through this dialogue, encourage others to see them as more than just that label,” Johnson says. Of course, even though every book has a title, there’s a lot more to the person behind each label. “I think that that is what makes the Human Library so powerful. Yes, the title of those books is a starting point, but people typically learn so much more about the person than just about their identity,” Johnson says.

“Books” Are People, Too

Anyone can be a human book. Everyone experiences life differently, and each person that walks into a Human Library event has something unique to offer. This is exactly what drew Holly Macejak, a volunteer book with the title “Adopted,” to contact the Chicago Human Library about volunteering as a book. “I’ve always felt that people are full of stories; we all have stories to share, we all come from different places, so the concept of setting this up like a library was very interesting,” she says.

“That’s what I just hope that people gather from this, is when you have questions about somebody’s life, it’s not disrespectful to ask questions as long as you’re being respectful in how you do it.” —Holly Macejak

Macejak acknowledges that sharing her experience with complete strangers can be awkward at first, but ultimately she believes that the Human Library is beneficial to both books and readers. “At first it’s a little awkward sharing so much personal information, and something that’s very emotional, but this is something that over my life I’ve come to really embrace and accept, and it’s very cathartic to talk about things,” she says. “Even when I’m talking to people, I’ll think of things or feelings that I haven’t thought of before, so they’re kind of like little therapy sessions, and it’s just really great to have people really listen and ask genuine questions and be interested in what’s going on.”

From Macejak’s perspective, having conversations that may be difficult or uncomfortable is one of the best ways to learn about someone else’s experience. In a nutshell, communication is key. “That’s what I just hope that people gather from this, is when you have questions about somebody’s life, it’s not disrespectful to ask questions as long as you’re being respectful in how you do it. I think that’s the only way that we can learn to grow together and be respectful toward each other,” Macejak says.

Ned Ricks, another volunteer book with the title “Veteran,” has a similar perspective on the impact of the Chicago Human Library. “If you’ve never met somebody… you don’t understand them, and so you form your own mental image and you operate on a stereotype,” Ricks says. He joined the Chicago Human Library as a volunteer to help dispel some of the stereotypes people have about veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans.

“As there seems to be a shrinking percentage of our population who are serving in the military, more and more people have never met a veteran, let alone a Vietnam veteran,” he says. In his experience, many people stereotype veterans as either being homeless or Hollywood-esque heroes like Rambo. “I’m just a suburban grandfather, regular guy, and so the more people who know somebody like me, they can think differently about the whole category of ‘veteran.’”

But just because a reader has checked out a book, that doesn’t mean that the volunteer they’re speaking to suddenly becomes a literal open book. “I tell people when we start our interview, ‘You can ask me anything you want,’” Ricks says. “I reserve the right to say I don’t know, because there’s a lot I don’t know. The string theory of quantum physics, I got nothing, so there’s no point. And I tell them, ‘You can ask me anything you want, and if I don’t want to talk about it, I’ll say so.’”

Volunteer books aren’t obligated to answer any question that makes them uncomfortable, and they can also end the conversation at any time. Reverend Jamie O’Duibhir, a volunteer with the title “Transgender Minister,” helped the Chicago Human Library develop a system for volunteers to subtly signal for help from the event organizers if they’re in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation. “We actually have something called a crisis card, which on one side has the list of the books’ rights,” O’Duibhir says. “If we flip it over, that means we need help, or we need something. And I was partially responsible for that, because I had a really frustrating conversation that I couldn’t end amicably, so we created those as a slightly more inconspicuous way to ask for help than perhaps standing up and shouting ‘Help!’” she continues.

How To Be a “Reader”

There’s a lot to be gained on both sides of the aisle at Human Library events, including as a reader. Paula McCosh, a reader at the Chicago Human Library’s most recent event at Read/Write Library, said she talked with books who had experiences that were entirely new to her, and also some she could relate to. “When I was looking through and picking what books to look at, I was looking for books either where I didn’t know much of anything about it, like talking with someone who’s asexual, or someone that offered a different perspective on something I was familiar with,” she says.

“I think one of the things I like the most about it is that we live in a world right now that is changing a lot, and there are a lot of new words and a lot of new vocabulary and things, and so it was great for me to have the opportunity to learn,” McCosh says.

McCosh compared her experience at the Chicago Human Library to speed dating, catching a tiny glimpse into someone else’s life. “It’s a chance to go and have a short conversation with somebody that you might not normally know or talk to in your own experience, and learn more about their experience and their life and their world,” she says. Libraries have always been centers for learning, but the Human Library goes a few steps further to help readers move from knowing about the lives of others to understanding them.

To visit a Human Library event near you, follow the international Human Library Organization on Facebook. You can also follow the Chicago Human Library on Facebook and Twitter for updates on Human Library events in the Chicago area.