A “human book,” Bennett Johnson, speaks with a “reader” at Evanston Public Library’s first Human Library Event in April of this year.         Photo by Lynn Trautman/LT photo Evanston

On Sept. 15 Evanstonians will have the opportunity to check out a human “book” from Evanston Public Library. For the second time this year the Library will be hosting a Human Library event, which brings together volunteers who serve as (and are called) “books” and community members who are “readers” that check the books out and can ask questions of the books and engage them in conversation.

Using a model created by the international Human Library program, which was founded and held its first event in Copenhagen in 2000, Evanston Public Library in April offered 10 human “books” for check out.

Perspectives from a transgender individual, a gay male, an African American activist, a biracial Evanston mother, a person with a disability and a Muslim woman were among the subjects offered. Evanston residents checked out books, some of them checking out multiple books during the event, and had a total of 83 conversations in three and a half hours.

Ayse Yekeler Bilgic, who volunteered as a book at the first event, said “It was a very good opportunity for me to talk with the people who have never met or talked with a Muslim woman before. I met different people. … I met some African American people, some lesbian and gay people. It was my first time to get together with all these different people.”

She said that she was mostly asked about discrimination, whether she faced it here or in her native country, Turkey. She was also asked about her headscarf and if it is difficult to wear in the summer. “One lady asked me about Turkish food and how delicious it is. Some people were surprised that I drive a car . . . people didn’t know Muslim women can drive,” said Ms. Yekeler Bilgic.

The Human Library concept was introduced to Library volunteer coordinator Mary Kling by a former board member who believed it could start valuable conversations in the community. “My role was to get the books. We had a lot of help from within the library – people who had experienced prejudice and discrimination and had different backgrounds. We started there,” said Ms. Kling.

She also researched and learned that the Human Library events that happen all over the world all have discrimination as their theme.

Because of this, the Evanston Library team wanted to be very careful with each person who volunteered to serve as a book. “We didn’t want them to feel we were exploiting them,” said Ms. Kling. To ensure that they got everything right she and one of her colleagues, librarian Julie Rand, attended a Human Library event in Chicago about two months before the Evanston event.

“We felt this calm, very normal atmosphere in the room. The books seemed to be so excited to be there and seemed to feel like they were playing an important role. Seeing [the Chicago event] helped a lot,” said Ms. Kling. What did cause Ms. Kling and Ms. Rand some anxiety was the concern that it might not be well-attended.

But Ms. Rand said, “The thing that surprised me the most is that we had to make a waiting list. There was so much more enthusiasm than I expected. I asked my husband to come . . . he said he could feel the excitement in the room, that it wasn’t noise, it was a kind of a positive vibe. We all felt it. It was so exciting to be a part of it. Some people just wandered in thinking they’d only talk to one person, but talked to more. One woman talked with all the books.”

For the day of the event, each book had prepared a short biography of a few sentences and three optional questions that they would like to answer. Ms. Kling, who interviewed everyone who volunteered to serve as a book, said, “[They] impressed me with their courage in dealing with their situation – courage and determination. They decided, ‘this is not going to keep me down.’ The unbelievable courage that people have had to rise above what life has given them is so inspiring.”

 “This kind of thing can change the world. Thank you. I wish more places could offer this,” said one of the readers to Ms. Kling, who noted that “In the current political climate, we’re looking for ways to connect and break down barriers for people, so they can find common understandings. We have so much more in common than what is different. Sometimes we fail to see that. The time would always be good for something like this, but it’s especially good right now.”

“Speaking to the power of the event Ms. Rand said, “In my own life, I’ve seen how knowing someone, seeing them as a human being, talking to them can break down prejudices . . . All libraries try to offer a different amount of diversity, different points of view. The Human library tries to do that too.”

Michael Warren, who also served as a book at the event earlier this year, said “I had zero expectations. At first I thought, no one is going to want to talk with me – gay white male, who cares? Next thing I know I had all these people wanting to talk with me.” Mr. Warren said that the event revealed common ground among those who participated about being a human being in today’s world. “In a world that’s so divisive, to put that all aside and say this is where I come from is a gift. Just that everyone could sit down and talk and relate to each other as human beings. Readers and books were truly enjoying themselves with the engagement that was going on,” said Mr. Warren.

Ms. Yekeler Bilgic said that she was nervous before the event, because she is still learning English and because she is Muslim and covers her head. “They told us if some question bothers us, we don’t have to talk [about it] with the readers, but I was nervous because I didn’t know what would be there. I was a bit shy,” said Ms. Yekeler Bilgic. At the beginning of the event she thought she might not be that busy, and was surprised that during three and a half hours she only had time for a five-minute break.

 “It was just great. After that, I decided that if I’m invited again, I would go again. I was invited and I’m going again. After that event, I’m not an American Citizen, but I felt like I’m from here,” said Ms. Yekeler Bilgic. “I realized that there are many differences among us, but . . . we need to leave the differences behind and work for our future, for the kids’ future, for a peaceful world.”

Mr. Warren said he hopes that there will be another great turnout on Sept. 15. “Everyone will get something out of it – both books and readers – just engaging one-on-one. I walked in with no expectations, but was blown away with the response. I feel blessed to be asked to do it again. I am who I am and that’s not going to change, goodness knows.”

Evanston Public Library’s upcoming Human Library event will take place in the Parasol Room at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center on Sept. 15 from noon to 3 p.m.

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...