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The art of listening

The Human Library founder Ronni Abergel speaks to The Express Tribune about the power of simple conversation

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED June 12, 2021

Scrolling across your social media feed, you may have come across a certain viral post about Denmark. The share in question speaks about libraries in the Nordic nation where you can ‘borrow’ a person rather than books. It adds that you can listen to these people – designated with titles revealing a certain aspect of their life like ‘refugee’ or ‘bipolar’ – as they share their stories and experiences.

The initiative in question is neither old by now, nor is it limited to just Denmark. The Human Library, in fact, is an international organisation and movement that began in 2000 and now has partners in more than 80 countries. By bringing people in contact with those they would not normally meet, the initiative seeks to challenge people’s prejudices and perceptions.

“The Human Library is designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue,” the organisation’s official website explains. “[It] is a place where real people are on loan to readers. A place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered.”

“Every human book from our bookshelf, represent a group in our society that is often subjected to prejudice, stigmatisation or discrimination because of their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin, etc,” the website adds.

The Express Tribune has had the opportunity to reach out to one of the founders of The Human Library, Ronni Abergel. In a wide-ranging conversation, he shared the immense impact the initiative has had on the lives of both ‘readers’ and the ‘human books’ they borrowed, and the power cultivating the art of listening and learning to unjudge others has in shaping a freer world for all of us.


ET: How did the idea for Human Library come about?

RA: The idea came to me at a time when we were invited to bring some kind of new concept to a festival in 2000. “Can you do something to challenge our guests?” was the question we had been asked. The year before we had done something really interesting with giving away free hugs. You could come up and have a hug, and we thought we could build relations, reduce violence amongst young people.

But for the next season of the festival we decided to try and go a level deeper and do something that was more obligating. My idea was that you should be confronted with someone you thought you didn’t like and have a chance to chat with them specifically about the things you didn’t like about them. This festival is a very tolerant, accepting and open-minded place, so I thought this could be the perfect place to put people on risk a little bit

Someone would volunteer to be the ‘unpopular’ person, like the police officer or the politician or someone from a background that people have a lot of stigma and prejudice about. The idea was to create a safe space where we can explore our differences in a non-confrontational manner, with the right to respect each other’s point-of-view as the basic foundation of the conversation.

You and me would have an exchange based on which I would have more information about, say, mental health or refugees. Ideally I would be sensitised to my own unconscious bias.

We all tend to make judgements based on stereotypes and prejudices, and this was a safe space to try and ‘unjudge’ someone. Where you ideally could meet somebody who represents a certain group you don’t have access to and you could ask them questions about aspects of their life, like say a disability, which in any culture would be considered impolite and confrontational.

Now a lot of people with a disability, for example, do see you looking and they know you have questions. Sometimes some of them would appreciate to hear those questions, if we had the social courage to ask them, because they want to explain who they are. They’re happy if that’s what it needs for you to better engage, recognise and accept

I thought there must be a lot of people out there who were misunderstood because of who they are and who would jump at the opportunity to explain who they are. Have a chance to explain and not be misunderstood like one often can be on mainstream mass and social media, where we’re inclined to draw very sharp images of each other

It’s important for us to have these spaces in our society to not be afraid to sit down and talk to someone who is Jewish, Muslim, police or transgender, or any other background. It’s also important to be able to discuss a topic we normally would feel comfortable talking about.

Like bereavement, which is going to touch upon all our lives. None of us can escape death. In our lifetimes we will be confronted with grief, so why are we so poor at talking about the inevitable? Why are we so afraid of taking responsibility for these conversations? Why do people who lose someone often experience social exclusion?

Because other people don’t know how to react. If something tragic happens in your life, the next tragic thing is that all of your co-workers or friends don’t know how to react. So you feel more alone than you’ve ever felt at the worst moments of your life because we human beings don’t know how to be human beings.


ET: Can you tell us a bit more about the concept of the Human Library? How does it operate in practical terms?

RA: We’re very much similar to your local library where you can walk in, choose a book and read it. The biggest difference is that in our library, the books are people who volunteer to share with you their experience on a given topic.

At the Human Library, we chose not make it a storytelling platform because there are a thousand wonderful alternative ones out there. We are a conversation format where you come in and choose a topic, let’s say ‘refugee’. At the library there would be a person from Afghanistan who ran away from the conflict and is now living in Pakistan. This person will answer any question you have about being a refugee in Pakistan like trying to survive with an Afghan background, getting a job or an education and providing for his or her family, creating a new future in a new country or why they ran away. Even if you ask them “why don’t you go back now, its peaceful in Afghanistan,” they would not be offended.

It provides the opportunity to engage and have a conversation with a stranger about a topic that you need to learn more about. In turn, they want their group and community to be better understood.

You come to the library to satisfy your curiosity about the diversity in your community. You have half an hour and the rules are simple: you bring the books back in the same condition, don’t take them home and don’t give them to somebody else.

If you go outside of the topic – lets say my topic is bereavement and you ask me about my sex life, and I maybe feel that I’m happy to talk about my loss but don’t want to talk about my intimate life – I will tell you “sorry, those pages are not published.” Maybe it’s a question I don’t feel comfortable discussing, maybe it’s irrelevant. We will give a polite answer and no one on either side will be offended. That’s how we protect our books.

You may ask what’s the difference between this and someone giving a presentation. The biggest one is that these are ordinary people with extraordinary journeys. They’re not communicators and don’t have their own blogs or a website. You can’t book them as they have a regular life. They give time to the library because they want the group they represent to be less misunderstood. You could say they are all on a community mission, not an individual one.

Why are we not promoting individuals? Because in the library, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all stigmatised because we’re different from the majority. When you come to our book depot, you will experience tremendous diversity – people from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of stories.

It’s a beautiful thing because you know what they do in there? They accept each other. The same thing that we ideally would like to see outside our library is actually being practiced inside our book depots. We are becoming friends.


ET: You pointed out that the Human Library intentionally opted for a conversation format instead of a storytelling one. What strikes as interesting about the choice is that every visit to your book depots is likely to result in a different experience. Was that always part of the intention?

RA: It was absolutely part of the intention because no two events would be the same and no two readings would be the same. It would never be boring to become a book because you always have a new experience and conversation.

But first and foremost, the idea was credibility. I needed you to trust the content of the library. If it was scripted or prepared, or if the books were being paid, you wouldn’t have the same incentive to believe them. A reader would say: you’re saying that because you’ll get $20 or because you’re campaigning, you’re trying to convince me to go political on this or you’re on a mission. No, that’s not what we want.

We don’t want missionaries or campaigners, and we don’t want converters. We want regular people who represent what could be your neighbours or the parents of a child your kid goes to school with. Credibility is of utmost importance because remember who is welcome at the library – everyone!

Who is to decide what you do in the library? Only you. No one will be the boss of you. What’s available to you? A whole world of information. Every one of us associate this library with one of the most inclusive institutions in our community. It’s a free service and the freedom there is completely ours.

We all need the opportunity to ask what normally might be called a stupid question. It’s not stupid to ask what you don’t know. It’s stupid not to ask


ET: How successful do you feel the initiative has been? At what point, were you able to see Human Library make a visible impact?

RA: Obviously we have a lot of data. We collect feedback from all of our readers after their engagement. We ask them to fill a survey. We’ve also done some scientific studies with external partners monitoring the impact of the sessions. I’m talking about more medium term impact. At the moment we’re in the middle of another field study with a university in Poland, a Centre for the Study of Prejudice, that is also looking into part of our impact.

I can tell you that from day one I realised that probably for the rest of my life I will be the messenger of this library. Because I saw that it worked. Sometimes you have an idea about something, but when you see that it really works. You see it change people and connect them. Seeing that power in action made me decide that until I saw something more effective, this would be what I work on.

In 21 years since we started this initiative, I have not seen anything more powerful than this vehicle. This is the strongest vessel for social change that I have seen in my life.

People may say that I’m saying this to promote the library, but no, it’s 15 years uphill. Nobody believed we could do this. Nobody was really interested, saying “oh, it’s too early or too much, too little.” Only in the last six years has it come to find its place and grow into its potential.

Now, I think every community needs a human library. Every school, every college, every community centre should have access to human library space.

So building local book depots around the world is what we’re doing now. We have one in Los Angeles that goes out to public libraries, colleges and schools. We have one in Fort Wayne, in New York, Copenhagen, London and in Dhaka.

Slowly but surely we’re building a human infrastructure around the world that can help us reach readers with this opportunity. I’m doing this because I’ve seen the impact. I’ve had many readers and books come to me and share with me tangible proof that this works.

Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. We’re not exactly getting rich giving all our books away for free. We’re just getting tremendous fulfilment in helping create more inclusive communities.


ET: In our prior conversation, you mentioned you were initially reluctant to actively promote this initiative. Could you tell us why?

RA: So you have to understand how much it takes to build a proper human library. I realised after the very first event 20 years ago that this format had tremendous power. But I also realised it would need a lot of resources, especially human resources.

Because of this I told myself that it would be important that not too many people find out how great this was all at the same time. If that had happened, everyone might have come to us for that impact at the same time too and we don’t have the human resources to accommodate that demand


ET: Speaking to you and from the testimonials on the Human Library website, it is apparent that the initiative has managed impact people from various walks of life within local communities. But what about inter-cultural and international exchanges? Are there any plans to explore that avenue?

RA: We are doing that already but it is more of a coincidence than by actual planning. The pandemic has forced all of our developments into a coincidental ‘what can we do now?’ mode. Due to Covid-19, we obviously had to shut down all our physical space activities. But by doing so, we finally started developing an online offering that we had dreamt about for many years.

We had some fears that the digital distance would take away some of our impact, but out of need, we started developing an online solution to still reach prospective readers. And suddenly a big demand from our diversity partners started. Big companies like Masco, UGI energy corporation, Merck Pharmaceuticals, Tesco and Microsoft reached out to us and said please help us. So we started publishing our books online.

As the demand grew, we simply had to merge our book collection. Now when we’re publishing, we have books from India, Switzerland, US, Australia, Malaysia and many different countries mixing together and getting to know each other in our virtual depot.

We are seeing more and more of our dream of the next step: an app that you can download, register as a reader on and look for a topic you want to learn more about. We hope by next year to begin opening the app country by country. As the technology settles, eventually someone in Alaska can borrow a book in Malaysia

I would like to point out that we’re developing this app right now in partnership with coders in Pakistan, among other nations. It is being developed in part in Islamabad so you can say Pakistan is helping getting the world talking.


ET: What role could such an initiative play in conflict mitigation, both among and within states?

RA: I think we have a real chance at helping build understanding between different nations. Politicians can do a lot of harm and they can also do a lot of good. But it surely also depends on the will of the people. How far they can go and what they can do. In the end, if the people say ‘no’, politicians will leave their office. Even dictators will leave their office.

If we can build relations between the people, if we can help them better understand by bringing them to talk in a safe space, then over time politicians will no longer have the power to polarise us against each other. We will know our enemy is not our neighbour. It is the people who are telling us our neighbour is the enemy.

Ultimately, it is about peace and coexistence and respecting each other’s right to be different, within our own countries and outside of them. We all need to treat people with the same respect we want to be treated with. If we follow that rule, we’re going to have a good time while we are here. That time is very short so using it for war and conflict and hate is a waste. There is so much mankind still needs to achieve. I truly believe that in this planet there is only one race – the human race.


ET: Is there any advice you would like to share with our readers? In today’s environment of hate politics and cancel culture, what does the initiative ‘unjudge’ stand to change or teach?

RA: I wish there was no need for the Human Library, but I’m afraid the need for these spaces – not just the ones we provide, but others like it – is bigger than ever. More and more people need a place to engage and become cohesive with others, and find answers to their questions to help depolarise the discussion.

It’s important for all of us, whether we are Human Library readers or not, to take responsibility for our biases and how they negatively impact other people on their journey.

In each and every one of us, there is the potential to have a fighter who ensures freedom for others by being open-minded and accepting of those different than us. The more we enable others to be free, they more we can be free ourselves.

I would recommend everyone to not be ashamed or afraid. We are just human beings. We navigate diversity based on our survival instincts. It takes effort to challenge that reflection which is intuitive and instinctive, and puts people in quick boxes and labels.

So go out in life and try to unjudge. When you understand things that are different, you are not going to fear them. When you live without fear, you have a high quality of life.