This library lets you borrow people instead of books. It just may help bridge our bitter divisions
Updated 7:14 AM ET, Sun November 14, 2021
(CNN)On a rainy spring morning in Muncie, Indiana, a White, middle-aged, conservative woman met a transgender woman for a date.
It did not start well. The transgender woman was waiting at a table when the other woman showed up. She stood up and extended her hand. The other woman refused to take it.
"I want you to know I'm a conservative Christian," she said, still standing.
"I'm a liberal Christian," the transgender woman replied. "Let's talk."
Their rendezvous was supposed to last about 30 minutes. But the conversation was so engrossing for both that it lasted an hour. It ended with the conservative woman rising from her seat to give the other woman a hug.
"Thank you," she said. "This has been wonderful."
This improbable meeting came courtesy of the Human Library, a nonprofit learning platform that allows people to borrow people instead of books. But not just any people. Every "human book" from this library represents a group that faces prejudice or stigmas because of their lifestyle, ethnicity, beliefs, or disability. A human book can be an alcoholic, for example, or a Muslim, or a homeless person, or someone who was sexually abused.
The Human Library stages in-person and online events where "difficult questions are expected, appreciated, and answered." Organizers says they're trying to encourage people to "unjudge" a book by its cover.
This setup leads to some of the most unlikely pairings anyone will ever see.
A feminist meets with a Muslim woman in a hijab and asks if she wears it by choice or compulsion.
A climate change activist meets with someone who thinks global warming is a hoax.
A Black antiracist activist meets with a supporter of former President Trump.
Or, in the case of Charlize Jamieson, a transgender woman meets a conservative Christian woman who thinks she is living in sin.
Jamieson says she agreed to be a "book" in the Human Library because she wants to encourage empathy. An animated and jovial conversationalist, she says she spent years denying who she was while working in corporate America.
"There's rough edges around people, and people form opinions based on what other people say or what the TV news says," she says. "And then you get in front of them, and you're sometimes like a nail file, filing off those rough edges."
This man founded the library to build bridges
The Human Library was created 21 years ago by Ronni Abergel, a Danish human rights activist and journalist who became interested in non-violence activism after a friend he describes as a "troubled youth" survived a stabbing in Copenhagen.
Abergel was born and raised in Denmark but lived in the US as an exchange student and has seen the political climate become increasingly partisan.
He wondered if a human library could bring people together like a traditional one. Only in this one, stigmatized or unconventional people would be treated like books -- readers could loan them out, ask them questions, learn something they didn't know and challenge their perceptions.
"I had a theory that it could work because the library is one of the few places in our community where everyone is welcome, whether you're rich or poor, homeless or living in a castle, professor or illiterate," he says. "It's truly the most inclusive institution in our time."
Abergel's idea has spread like a bestseller. The Human Library has hosted events in more than 80 countries, in libraries, museums, festivals and schools. It has more than 1,000 human books in circulation in more than 50 languages, with an especially strong presence in American cities such as Chicago and San Francisco, Abergel says.
If people check out a book, they won't need a translator. A librarian makes sure to pair readers with someone whose language they can understand.
"If you speak English, we make sure not to put you in a room with French books," Abergel says.
Abergel believes the library's mission has taken on more urgency in recent years. People across the globe are becoming more divided by social media bubbles, political beliefs and demagogues who cheer on these divisions to gain power.