Idea File: Storytellers on loan at the Human Library

The idea

A female firefighter who rappels out of helicopters and slogs through swamps to help people in distress. A woman who has provided foster care to over 200 troubled teens in her lifetime. A young Somali man who escaped his country’s civil war, won a scholarship to a Canadian university, and now helps refugees.

They, along with others, have volunteered to be on loan at Surrey Libraries in British Columbia as part of the Human Library, an event where people become living books.


The Human Library is as straightforward as it sounds: instead of grabbing a book off the shelf, you sign out a person and listen to them tell tales for a couple of hours. Think audio book, but with a handshake (or better yet, hug) at the end.

This notion of bringing books to life began twelve years ago with a Denmark youth organization that wanted to challenge prejudices. The idea has since been adapted around the world, and can now be found in over 45 countries.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • New take on an old concept. Libraries everywhere have gone through many transformations (books rescued from the trash in Bogota and traveling donkey libraries in Ethiopia come to mind), and the Human Library further proves these institutions aren’t dying, but rather, evolving.
  • Respects and appreciates diversity. Everyone has a story to tell. People of all experiences, ages, and backgrounds are encouraged to participate, tapping into the knowledge and expertise of the local community.
  • Encourages empathy. We read to immerse ourselves in other contexts and see the world from someone else’s point of view. When talking to living books, you might find that your similarities thread you together, instead of your differences.
  • Values real-time conversation. With eBooks, iPads and everything in between dominating much of our time today, being able to look into someone’s eyes and connect around our humanity is refreshing.
  • Adaptable in many contexts. The concept doesn’t have to be limited to an actual library: it could work at schools, festivals, government offices, corporations, and more. Depending on resources, it could also be an ongoing program or a once-in-a-while event.

How you can replicate it

The folks who created the first Human Library want nothing more than for you to borrow their idea. They’ve already done a lot of the initial legwork for you; their website has a guide for organizers in eight different languages, sample evaluation reports and forms, tips for readers, and more.

Interesting fact: the first Human Library took place at a music festival in Denmark. (Photo via Ravi Basi.)

We also reached out to Ravi Basi, one of the organizers at Surrey Libraries, to hear her advice for people looking to start a Human Library where they live. Here’s what she had to say:

Finding living books

  1. Use your own networks. Relying on unsolicited offers from the public is too random and complicated of an approach. Instead, gather recommendations from staff, community agencies, colleges, and nonprofits in addition to scanning local newspapers.
  2. Set your criteria from the beginning. Living book volunteers at Surrey Libraries, for example, had to have a story to tell, good communication skills, be personable and friendly, and understand the concept and goals of the Human Library. If they met this criteria, they then went through an interview process.
  3. Incentives, while not necessary, are nice. The living books will probably be enthusiastic and eager to participate. But still, to show gratitude, you can do things such as offset parking costs, provide lunch and snacks, and give gift bags.

Organizing the event

  1. Start small. Rather than hosting a day-long event, try an afternoon or evening event of four hours. Learn the glitches, and then improve next time around.
  2. Allow readers to pre-register. To ensure the living books aren’t left without readers, devise a registration system where people can sign up for time slots in advance.
  3. Have a back-up plan. Err on the side of having an abundance of living books and line up spare readers to account for no-shows.

“Anyone who plans or participates in the Human Library will find it to be a valuable, even profound experience,” says Ravi. “It’s worth doing.”


If you’re inspired to bring the Human Library to your community, feel free to email Ravi for more advice:


Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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