I was intrigued the very first time I had heard, or rather read about the Human library. The Human Library, for those who don’t know, is a concept birthed in Denmark in 2000. It is now organised all over the world. In a Human Library, real people are on loan to readers, giving readers the opportunity to listen to their stories first-hand. The hope is to break down social barriers by providing a safe platform for individuals to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that they may have.
I was so enamoured by the very concept, that I wanted to experience it first-hand. It all sounded so dynamic and empathetic! And so, I waited for the next event to take place. Finally, I got my chance last week, when I heard about The Human Library @Duxton, Singapore. All I had to do was register through email, and let them know my preferred time slot, and my preferred human book. In two days, I had my conformation. I was ready for my experience.
However, as I made my way to the event after a long day at work, I began doubting my intention to attend. What if I am disappointed? What if it’s a hype? What if I don’t reach on time? I was agitated enough as the taxi uncle slowly, and very cautiously inched towards the address that he clearly didn’t know. Eventually, I got down from the snail-like-car, and made my way, flustered and late to 99 Duxton Road.
The place was abuzz with activities. “Are you a book or a reader,” I was asked. The question was both intriguing and unexpected. I smiled. My very first Human Library experience had begun. “Reader,” I replied. The volunteers at the registration table handed me my library card, and I made my way to table 4. The book title was, Single Mum. As I hurried to my designated book, I had company. Another lady was late, just like I was and we happily spoke to each other, both glad to have company as we entered the “library” late.
My first thought was, wow, this place is full of bright energy, and lively conversations! There was absolutely nothing dull, or forced in there. What kind of people would come here? Who would want to be a book, and who would want to be a reader? I looked around at the room awash with warm light and smiling faces. There were people of different age groups and backgrounds, but they all had one common trait it seemed, they were all open to know more, and they were all open to share. Yes, that is exactly what was striking in this room. Everyone in the room was a communicator in some way or the other.
I found table 4. My human book, Sherlin, was a bright and vivacious lady, who introduced herself: “Hi, I am a a single mom. A widow.” Then she went on narrating her experiences of loss, pain and of bouncing back. The bouncing back bit was emphasised. She was clearly a lady who enjoyed communicating. The questions poured in, one after the other. The readers were clearly people who enjoyed communicating as well! There were no awkward pauses, or lack of interest. Those 20 minutes were enriched with constant and seamless sharing of ideas, thoughts and experiences. Questions directed at her ranged from financial situations, to grieving process, to even dating experiences, and oh my, my book was not shy! There were no euphemisms and no pretenses. There were also no barriers to communication. The books were there to share their stories, and the readers were there to know these stories. The goal was achieved brilliantly!
By the end of it, I started feeling a kinship with my book. I was proud of her, and thankful to have heard a story that was this personal. Few things stayed with me though, from that conversation. They were my lessons learnt that day.
First was on loss and grieving. Most people are uncomfortable around those who have suffered a loss, she said, and having lost a parent myself a few years ago, I could empathise. “Also, most people don’t know what to say to the one grieving”, she added. I agreed to that too. “I hate the phrase, stay strong,” she finally said, exaggerating the woeful face of a sympathiser trying to deliver a condolence message. We all laughed, guilty of having said that phrase to many people ourselves. “ You don’t have to say that, you know. Because, grieving is allowed, and it’s okay to be sad, and vulnerable, and weak sometimes.”
Lesson learnt in what not to say in a condolence message.
Secondly, she spoke about volunteering as an act of empowerment. According to her, the act of volunteering made her feel good about herself, and infused her with a feeling of positivity. “The more you help others, the better (and stronger) you feel about yourself.”
Lesson learnt in empowerment and volunteerism
Lastly, I couldn’t help but notice, what a positive and bright energy she was. “How do you maintain this energy in spite of all the problems that you face in your personal life?” I asked. “I have a role model, she said, my mother.” Her mother, she informed us, was bright and active, and lived life to the fullest, inspite of many personal setbacks. Sherlin had learnt to do the same. “I want to be a role model too,” she said. Well, Sherlin, I already think you are!
Lesson learnt in living life to the fullest, in being inspired by those you look up to, and lesson learnt in aspiring to be an inspiration to others.
And thus my first experience of being at the Human library ended. If I had known it would be this invigorating, and informative, I would have registered for few more slots. There was so much more to learn, and so many stories to hear. And like always, the more I know about new experiences, and new things, the more I realise how less I know.
Lessons learnt in humility.
Read Sherlin’s story here
Learn more about The Human Library SG here
I lingered a bit more to take pictures, to speak to the organisers, and to look around at many new conversations that were breaking barriers, shattering the stereotypes, and bringing people together. After all, we are all stories separated by barriers of ignorance.