Ten years of Human Library world wide - an interview with Ronni Abergel to the Greek Human Library.


photographer Jakob Boserup Fotografi (c)

H.L.GR: How was the idea of the Human Library conceived and why (what motivated it)?

R.A.: When working at the Stop The Violence Denmark we were invited to present events for Roskilde Festival that could inspire people to reduce violence.
   In our way of thinking a lot of the serious violence happening between people who did not know each other (street, nightlife etc) was motivated by conflict but escalating in its levels because the two parties saw each other as adversaries. So we thought how can we get people who probably see each other as "opposites" to sit down and talk and maybe realize that they have more in common than what seperates them.
   Example: The youth activist and the police officer, the football supporters from different clubs who are in rivalry, people of different religious beliefs, people of different sexual orientation etc.

H.L.GR: What was it that you wanted to change?

R.A.: We wanted to change the way we "generalise" on each other. This group (say hip hoppers) does this and that is why we dont like them and the increased tendency to stereotype (typecast) people based on their looks, beliefs, ethnicity, religion etc.
   We wanted to provide a space for dialogue and honest exchange of opinions/values. Hoping that the dialogue would lead to an increased understanding for each others diversity. That even though we are different, we also have a lot in common. Further we wanted to see if it was possible to challenge peoples prejudices/stereotypes and provide them with a more knowledge based grounds to make up their minds.

H.L.GR: It has been 10 years now, how have you and the Human Library evolved, and what has changed?

R.A.: I myself was a person who was fast to pass judgement on people who were different from myself. Especially in my younger years, when I belonged to the "hip hop" subculture environment here in Denmark. Anybody who did no like rap music - was something wrong with them. As I grew older I came to learn the value of diversity and meeting great people from different cultures, environments and with different opinions has helped me qualify my view of the world.
   Same thing with the Human Library. Already on the first day at Roskilde festival I realised that this would be a big part of my life. That this idea and methodology was so powerful that it actually has a chance to help create a change for the better. To build understanding, increase cohesion and thus improve the quality of life for all living beings.
   Fortunately I have found good help from thousands of books, librarians and institutions around the world in realizing this mission. To build cohesion and understanding i.e. tolerance and peace among people.

The Human Library has developed in ways that has surprised even me. Every country and local organizer brings something new to the table and over the past ten years we have seen the methodology refined and optimized and adapted to the local community and culture in which it is to serve. The Human Library´s travels around the world has shown that this concept is as strong as globalization itself. And that it provides opportunities for those reading as well as those being read (books).
   Imagine how the quality of life increases when you feel better understood by your sourroundings. When the community in which you live accept you for who you are. They can disagree but they respect your fundamental right to be the way you are and are able to utilize this diversity as a ressource to the community.
   Long after I am dead and buried, the Human Library will still be around making change in the world and bringing people closer to each other. Thus increasing the glue that binds all human beings together and helping to set the stage for peaceful co-existence across cultural, religious and personal beliefs as well as geographical borders.

H.L.GR: What are the current challenges?

R.A.: In the world there are many but in reference to the Human Library we are faced with the challenge of educating local organizers to apply the concept properly and to protect this methodology from being abused by special interest groups that want only to bring attention to their own needs, desires or challenges. This is why we are now currently trying to standardize the use of the Human Library concept, name and methodology. To ensure that every event has quality, good books and more important at diversity in the titles available to readers. It is not really interesting to only have the choice of Living Books with different mental challenges, or books that all represent different minority groups. A true Human Library must reflect the diversity and challenges in the community in order to really serve its role and to remain neutral, like a real library is.
   Further we have the challenge have more events and find funding and partnerships to be able to reach more readers. There are still many countries that have not had a Human Library and even more countries where the methodology is not established enough to reach the amount of people needed to make a global impact, but slowly we are taking more steps everyday toward this goal. Finally we need more governments, public and private foundations to support the Human Library activities. We need them to realize that this tool makes a real difference in peoples lifes and as such is worthy of support.

   The Human Library has more support in Australia and Norway than it does in the country where it comes from, Denmark. What does that say about the politics of the Danish government???

H.L.GR: What do you visualize, 10 years from now?

R.A.: We have reached more than 60 countries now. In ten years I would hope to be in more than 150 nations across this beautiful planet. Maybe even more. Also I would hope that schools, Universities, colleges etc. would adopt the Human Library and integrate the methodology into the curriculum. So that students from countries all over get a chance to work with and take part in a Human Library.

H.L.GR: The Human Library was recently awarded by the Danish Union of Librarians for its contribution in the past 10 years. What do you feel this contribution is to Europe and worldwide?

R.A.: It is always an honor to be recognized for your work and the contribution to the community. I am hoping the award can help make visible the appreciation from librarians around the world, who are using the Human Library to attract new partners and offer a different and innovative service to their readers. Off course we are proud to receive the Doessing Award, but we will be even more proud the day NOBEL calls us....(smile).

H.L.GR: 10 years of Human Library world wide, 2 years of Human Library Greece: Do you have a piece of advice for us?

R.A.: You need to consolidate your activities and find local and national partners to ensure the continuance of the Human Library in Greece. I would recommend formalizing into a national NGO - non profit organization - that will facilitate partnership events where all the partners contribute to cover the costs. This would allow a wider distribution in Greece and also ensure that many national interest groups such as Disabled Organizations, People with HIV, Mental Illnesses, Refugees and many more all could be represented and all could help pay for the events.
   Globally we are in a very exciting period just now. In more and more countries we are establishing national ngo´s or national contact points for new organizers. Also new countries are joining us all the time. At the same time we are now facilitating trainings for new organizers in even more countries and just recently did a training in Scotland and one in Romania. Finally I am personally very excited that we are moving into China this year. Countries where Human Rights are under pressure or not respected, are especially important to me. As I feel that the Human Library can serve as a great example of how things could/should be.

H.L.GR: Recently European Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg issued a report showing that human rights in Europe are violated even more in the period of the financial crisis. Given that in Greece the financial crisis had a big impact on our society, do you believe that Human Library can play a significant part in dealing with the resulting discrimination and racism?

R.A.: I sure hope so. However we must also realize that there is a clear limitation to the capabilities of the methodology. We typically say that sceptics and even opposites can be inspired by visiting a Human Library, but people who are extremely prejudistic are not likely to change their views from loaning a book. In fact most likely they would be too intolerant to even take out a book. So for the majority part yes but there will always be a small group of people who want/need/have been brainwashed to blame another group for their troubles. Like here in Denmark, they are now reestablishing "Border Control" despite the Schengen agreement. Politicians are argueing that a lot of the crime that we are experiencing here is due to people coming from other Schengen countries here to commit crimes. Obviously they have no evidence of this being the case and even less evidence that spending 50 million Euros a year will make any sort of impact on crime statistics. But somehow a majority in parliament have become convinced that this is the way to try and solve this problem. In reality Denmark will only become more and more isolated from the outside world and at the same time people outside will see even more clearly how Xenophobic the Danish society is becoming.

   I can only hope that a change of government later this year can help change this, but I am no longer so sure that the politicians are not in reality just "playing" on the fears of the population and thus profiting from the extended state of Xenophobia that has gripped the nation the past ten years.

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