‘Human Libraries’ are bigger than ever. Could they help Utah?

With international interest surging and newcomers to the state, it may be time to restart the state’s former programs.

(Ronni Abergel) A person serving as a human "book" shares experiences in 2019 at an event in the United Kingdom organized by the Human Library. The Human Library is a not-for-profit organization based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

An Instagram post last week spread awareness about the existence of the “Human Library” — a safe space where visitors could “check out” other people instead of books, who would share their life experiences.

The post went viral with hundreds of thousands of likes, and the comment section flooded with people who gushed about their experiences with human libraries and those who had never heard of the concept.

Human libraries work differently in various places, but the premise is usually the same: Participants enter and are matched with someone — who is called a “book” — with a specific set of lived experiences, ranging from being Lebanese to having had an abortion. Participants can ask the “human book” questions they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable asking in another situation.

Utah has hosted human libraries in the past but none for several years. A “living library” in Salt Lake County’s library system ran for two years, starting in 2014, but was discontinued due to lack of attendance. A similar program ran every year from 2012 to 2017 at Utah State University, but it was halted for staffing reasons.

The international program is bigger than it’s ever been — it’s booked through January — and both the organization and Utah librarians believe the state could benefit.

According to Ronni Abergel, who co-founded the Human Library based in Denmark, the program is built on the assumption that humans don’t naturally ask other humans questions about “taboo” subjects.

“Our social norms just don’t invite you to walk up to a stranger on the street and start talking about their facial tattoos, or their disability, or their religion or ethnic background,” Abergel said. “And we’re realizing that all of us have these unconscious biases about other people and what they’re like and why they’re like that. But if we don’t have access, we can’t find answers.”

Abergel told The Salt Lake Tribune that human libraries could be especially helpful in places like Utah, where we experience religious and political divides or issues surrounding race and justice.

While members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now make up a minority of Salt Lake City residents, the proportion is still just under half. Abergel said he and his colleagues’ main impression of Utah was Mormonism.

“Is that positive or negative? I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s a label.”

Human libraries, Abergel said, work to break down these labels.

(Ronni Abergel) A person serving as a human "book" shares experiences in 2019, at an event at the University of California, Los Angeles organized by the Human Library. The Human Library is a not for profit organization based in Copenhagen, Denmark

“So what I think we can do is we offer a safe, neutral ground to come in and learn and explore,” he said. “Sometimes a Muslim will come in and borrow a Jew. Sometimes a Christian will borrow a Muslim. There is sort of a respect around it that I’ve seen in all the sessions I’ve been to.”

Anne Hendrich, who ran the program at USU, notes that human libraries can help expose Utahns to groups of people they otherwise wouldn’t come across.

“We tried to find books where they’d talk about something hard to find out about otherwise,” she told The Tribune. “It gives everyone a better understanding of what it’s like for them to be experiencing life here in Utah — this stuff is around us, but sometimes it’s hard to see it.”

When Liesl Seborg ran the Salt Lake County human library program in 2014 and 2015 and one of the “books” was Muslim, she said, it was some participants’ first time meeting a member of the Islamic faith. The same held true for LGBTQ+ “human books.”

“They were very popular,” Seborg said, noting that as recently as 2014 and 2015, some Utahns “didn’t realize that they knew gay [people]. Having them was really great.”

Abergel attributes some of the organization’s growth to its proven and studied success — a recent study by research consultancy Analyse & Tal emphatically praised the library’s impact. The organization wants to expand the Human Library to a virtual format, where participants can connect with “books’' all over the world via an app. This would allow people to access the library even if their communities weren’t able to put on a formal event.

So what’s stopping human libraries from exploding in Utah the way they have in other countries?

“Over the years, people retired or took different positions or just wanted to step away for a time, and while we got some new folks, it wasn’t enough to carry it,” Hedrich said. “But who knows? Maybe after this break, we might be able to have a human library again.”

Seborg said human libraries could return to the county library system “if we were able to get enough momentum behind them.”

“Timing is important,” she said. “But I think the impact that it can have here in the county would be phenomenal.”

Hendrich agreed. She recalled being able to watch the expressions of those participating in the USU Human Library and being amazed.

“You just look at their faces, and you see the interest and the wonder,” she said. “There was real connection. You could see it in everybody’s faces.”

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

(Ronni Abergel) A person serving as a human "book" shares experiences in 2019, at an event in the United Kingdom organized by the Human Library. The Human Library is a not for profit organization based in Copenhagen, Denmark.