Toronto libraries to lend out ‘human books’

This summer, Toronto’s public libraries will offer a brand new collection of books – and you don’t even have to be able to read.

The city is planning to implement the Living Library, a program that started in Denmark in 2000 and has since expanded to include almost 30 countries.

A variety of human books – people with life experience or expertise in any given subject – will be available for library-goers to check out for a given period of time. No question is off-limits.

Alex Moore, 22, recently checked out a number of human books at the University of Guelph’s Living Library event on March 5 and 6.

Moore, who described himself as a “straight, white male,” said that the people he spoke to – including a lesbian feminist, a black woman, an HIV-positive man and an adopted man – helped him to break down barriers and understand things from new perspectives.

His conversation with the adopted man was a real revelation.

“Just the ability to say, ‘I got my mother’s hair,’ or ‘I have my father’s eyes.’ … It was something I had never considered before, something that didn’t come into my mind,” Moore said. “I had just taken for granted that I had that comfort, that sense of where I’m from and who I am.”

Linda Hazzan, the director of marketing and communications for Toronto Public Libraries, said the program will offer human books based on issues relevant to the city. According to the library’s official strategic plan, this could include immigration, culture, the needs of seniors and the growing income gap – though there’s definitely room to expand. This new program will offer an experience beyond the traditional books, CDs and online content currently on offer.

“I think the interactive experience, the fact that you can ask, respond and explore, takes you down a path that a book may not be able to,” Hazzan said. “Some people are intimidated by books or certain topics, so to get it firsthand from people, in the way you want to explore it – it’s cool, it’s fun.”

According to Hazzan, library staff members are in the initial planning stages and looking at previous Living Libraries to find out what has worked in the past.

The very first Living Library in Canada began in early 2006 at Douglas College in southern British Columbia.

One of their human books is John Fox, 60, an instructor at the college whose topics include international development and mental health. He was skeptical about the idea at first – he thought no one would want to “borrow” him – but he agrees that it’s a great way to engage people and provide timely information.

“In society now, we communicate so much electronically. It’s interesting to see a project that goes back to rural and personal interaction,” Fox said.

Douglas College’s program has since expanded to partner with the nearby Coquitlam Public Library.

And after the success of similar events all over the world, Toronto Public Libraries will soon be handing out new library cards to people from all walks of life.

Filed by Laura Godfrey