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Human Library Books Engage Readers in Conversation
By Phyllis McGuire, Special to iBerkshires
05:37PM / Wednesday, February 15, 2012
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A student, left, 'reads' one of the living books available last week at Williams College.

Students Mimi Ludwig, left, and Bethany Dixon tell Nai Chien Yeat about some of the living books available at the Paresky Center's 'Human Library.'
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Books can be instructive, escapist, emotional and illuminating. At Williams College last week, they were also conversational.

The college hosted a "Human Library" with volunteer living books at the Paresky Student Center on Friday and Saturday as a way to promote dialogue on variety of issues. The Human Library was conceived in Denmark in 2000 by a non-governmental youth movement called Stop The Violence.

"The Human Library is a way to know people who have had unusual experiences and faced challenges — ask them questions, and check out prejudices," said Magnus Bernhardsson, associate professor of history, who as a Gaudino Scholar is charged with embracing and shaping opportunities for experiential education and “uncomfortable learning." 

He and Katarzyna Pierprzak, associate professor of Francophone literature, French language, and comparative literature, started organizing for the library a year ago. It was the first Human Library held in Massachusetts.
Their interest began after reading about the project. "When we discussed this with the librarians at Williams, they had heard about it via the American Library Association," Bernhardsson said. The event was opened to students and the community at large.
People taking out books signed a Reader Agreement, referred to as a library card, that cautioned them to "Treat your Book with care. Do not damage or hurt its dignity in any way ... This is a conversation, and a unique opportunity to examine and test your preconceived notions about other people."
Books could be borrowed for 25 to 30 minutes. Suggestions for what kind of book would be of interest had been garnered through surveys among Williams students, postings in town and a website.
"Williamstown Elementary School sixth-graders, whose curriculum includes learning about the survey process, partnered with us by surveying 150 people at Williams — mostly students," Bernhardsson said.
Among the titles the 30 living books gave themselves were Evangelical Christian, Libertarianism, Raised in an Orphanage, Male Victim of Sexual Assault, Fat Woman. 
President Adam Falk was the first to borrow a living book when the library opened at 11 on Friday.

"It's a wonderful program and I am just thrilled that professor Bernardsson brought this to Williams," said Falk. "I think that one of the things we aspire to do really well is to listen to one another, and this is a program that breaks down stereotypes by listening and conversation in the best Williams' tradition and is wonderful for the college."

Falk selected Transgender. "What I learned is that the decision to transition gender comes after years of reflection," he said. "For someone who makes that decision, it is a critical step in their journey to living their life authentically."
Freshman Jordan Zhou checked out LDS Missionaries (Mormons) and found that it dispelled some misconceptions.

"Two major misconceptions are that Mormons are not exactly Christians as they reject the Holy Trinity concept, and that they are polygamous," Zhou said. "[However,] fundamentally they are Christian  because they do believe in Christ, and the practice of polygamy was abandoned when Utah joined the Union."

The second book the freshman borrowed, Child of Holocaust Survivors, gave him a clearer and intimate picture of what happened in Europe through the eyes of European Jews, he said. "I got to feel their despair and anger in a really intense way."
Joseph Doyle and his wife, Ann, of Adams, each read three books. Ann Doyle chose Palestinian, Male Nurse and Child of Holocaust Survivors. "The experience gave us a better understanding, a different perspective, and opened our horizons," she said.
Joseph Doyle read Psychiatrist, Vietnam Vet and Palestian, and felt the time was well spent.

"Anytime we talk to a different person and give our opinions one on one, it is worth while," Doyle said. "If we could do it worldwide, it would be a better place."
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