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Which “Book” Would You Take Out At This Human Library?

Kerry Klein
Fresno police detective Sammy Ashworth, right, was one of the most popular books at Reedley College's "human library" event last week.

You’ve probably heard of a school library, public library, or even a toy lending library, but what about a human library? A local community college held its first event of this kind, where readers take out much more than books.

Browse the shelves at a more typical library and you’ll find titles like Good Night Moon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Grapes of Wrath. At a Human Library, though, these are the books: Danny Kim, a genocide survivor; Briana Sawyer, a black student; and Bertha Reyes, an immigrant.

Last week, these and about two dozen other so-called “books” gathered at Reedley College to take part in the school’s first Human Library. They’re called books because they have their own unique stories to tell, with titles like “Catholic,” “child of deaf adults,” or “vegan.” Under a tent on the Reedley College quad, they sit along one side of a long banquet table—called a “bookshelf”—and wait for "readers" to sit down and strike up conversation.

In a throng of readers waiting for an open chair, Mykel Saucedo looks contemplatively at the list of book titles. He’s already spoken to an LGBTQ individual and a student with autism, and he’s excited to fit in one more conversation before class. “You need to put yourself into other people's shoes to learn some things,” says Saucedo, a Reedley sophomore studying communications.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
Organizers printed up this introduction and guide to help readers strike up conversation with books.

He chooses a visually impaired man and wastes hardly any time on small talk. He asks a question that in other circumstances may be considered impolite. “Do people make assumptions about you based on your appearance and your visual impairment?” he asks.

But the book, a student named Jeffrey Sites living with Bardet-Biedl syndrome, is ready. He explains he’s had to develop a sense of humor about his near blindness. “My last name is Sites, for crying out loud,” he laughs, “so let's just be honest right there.”

This is probably the kind of conversation that Rebecca al Haider is hoping for. She teaches English as a Second Language on campus, and she organized the event. She designed it to function similar to a kind of cultural speed dating. Readers “sit down at what we call a bookshelf, the books are there and the books are human, and they get to interview them about the identifiers and ask questions that break stereotypes and prejudices.”

The human library concept was introduced almost 20 years ago by activists protesting violence in Denmark. Since then, it’s grown to a global movement, with events held in dozens of countries and cities all across the U.S. The general objective is to expose people to vastly different life experiences.

That’s what inspired Al Haider, too. She advises the college’s multicultural club and encounters lots of students who struggle with discrimination and cultural misunderstandings. “I thought: if only people knew my students the way that I know them and their personal stories,” she says.

Although Al Haider may hope for big cultural transformations, she set readers up with some more manageable goals. “We have handed out these papers that have just one question: what's the most important point you learned from this event?” she says. “And if they learned one new point, then we're happy and we see that as success.”

The event is packed. Al Haider estimates at least 200 readers have passed through. Some books, like the Muslim and Sikh individuals, have had no breaks—just a constant stream of curious participants.

Credit Kerry Klein / KVPR
The event's 25 book titles included "Black," "Visually impaired/blind," "Muslim," and "Survivor of domestic violence."

Most readers tell me they think the event is a great idea. I met one who isn’t even a student at Reedley and drove 12 miles from Orosi just for a chance to have some unusual conversations.

But how did the human books feel about this? Did their singular labels leave them feeling misunderstood, or reduced? The consensus is no. Jack DiGiacamo, a Reedley student with autism, says addressing his diagnosis head-on was refreshing. “I wouldn't be the person I am without autism,” he says. “I love talking and sharing with people more about autism.”

Darlene Murray, a Reedley professor and the teen mom book, said for her, that label was just a path into a bigger conversation about all of her intersecting labels. “Biracial, female, former teen mom, first generation college student; whether it's one identifier over another, it's my story and I think that we can learn a lot.”

Some conversations feel natural, like two people just trying to get to know each other. But others? Fireworks. Sammy Ashworth is a detective with the Fresno Police Department and one of today’s books. He says one reader who approached him is an ex-con. They both realized this was an opportunity they probably wouldn’t get anywhere else. “They actually told me, when I was growing up, before I went to prison I hated law enforcement. I would just as soon have killed you as be sitting here with you, and now we're sitting here together openly talking together and we have a good dialogue, a good bridge built between us,” Ashworth says. “It was an amazing conversation.”

Eventually, Al Haider hopes to run the event annually. She’s already thinking about books she’ll recruit next time. 

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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