I'm an Open Book in the Human Library

A school librarian participated in a Human Library event and answered questions about her identity. Here's what she experienced.

Leslie Gallager (left) and Jess DeCourcy Hinds

This spring, the Human Library NYC held its first in-person event at the New York Society Library, a members-only institution in a grand Italianate town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As a longtime school librarian, I’d always been curious about the Human Library (HL), an international nonprofit based in Copenhagen, Denmark, that facilitates conversations between the public and various marginalized people in society—human “Books,” which is the official title for trained volunteers who open their stories up to strangers with the aim of breaking down bias and building empathy.

l I loved the idea that you could “borrow” a person as you would a book. Everyday people register as Readers, and trained Librarians (not necessarily librarians in real life) serve as coordinators and provide emotional support if anything goes wrong.

I’d long been intrigued about the HL, but never considered being a Book myself until this year.

I was recruited on Facebook by a professional acquaintance, Leslie Gallager the HL Depot Manager for New York City and the librarian at Brooklyn Prospect High School. After Gallager came across articles I’d published about my queer family, she messaged me about participating. We had an interview and then a brief training session.

When I arrived at the New York Society Library with other participants, there was a festive environment—and cupcakes—but I knew we’d be covering some heavy topics. The Books titles were Queer (me), Trauma Survivor, PTSD, Depression, Comedian. and Orphan. Two other HL librarians, Gail Ward, who works in publishing, and Andrea Glick who is employed in the nonprofit sector, greeted us and distributed black HL T-shirts with the motto “Unjudge Someone.” Then we crammed into a rickety elevator and rode up to the “green room,” where we prepped for the event.

Gallager gathered us around her like a sports coach, sharing motivating words with warmth and verve. I could see how she’d be good with high school students. As Gallager explained, the Readers would be seated across six tables, and we Books would join two different tables for 30-minute conversations. We would introduce ourselves by our title and first names. One of the Books, whose title was Orphan, said he liked to share his “chapter headings” so readers could decide where they wanted to start. According to the HL training materials, the focus is on the “Reader’s agenda,” and we are encouraged to say, “Ask me anything.” However, Gallager reminded us, if any reader gets too personal, we can say, “That chapter about me hasn’t been published yet.”

As all of us Books filed into a wood-paneled, book-lined chamber, I felt as if I were part of a performance, playing myself. I introduced myself to the group of five people of different ages and cultural backgrounds and followed the Orphan’s lead on sharing chapter headings.

However, it felt a bit awkward. My chapters are, “Assumed to be Straight,” “Came out as Lesbian,” “Embraced Bisexuality,” “Married a Man and Passed as Straight,” and then “My Husband Transitioned and Identified as Pansexual.” I blushed and asked the group, “What chapter should we read first?” There was dead silence.

One reader asked me to define all the terms I shared, including queer. Instead of asking about my story, she asked about the difference between cis-gender and transgender, bisexual and pansexual. Another reader who identified as queer jumped in to supply definitions, and it felt like a Sexuality 101 class. Then we were derailed by a reader with an axe to grind who wanted to debate me.

When one of the HL Librarians, Glick, swooped by and eavesdropped on the conversation, I made eye contact. She’d earlier instructed me to signal her with a special wave if I needed to be rescued. I didn’t wave, but I did smile at her a few times, glad to have her by my side for moral support. Luckily, the tensions eased, and I didn’t need a referee.

My second table was calmer—and also a younger, more smiley group. This time, I introduced myself differently. Listing my chapter headings felt overwhelming. Instead, I said, “My title is Queer, my subtitle is Pansexual.” Then I shared how my husband became my wife, and that we’re a pretty ordinary family in Queens, NY, happily married with two daughters. It was far easier to introduce myself this way. I told stories about how my toddler barely noticed that one of her parents was transitioning. All she cared about was that we stuck to her usual routines, and that her favorite blanket and stuffed animals were at hand.

This table expressed wonder and awe at the idea of falling in love with the same person twice, first as a man, then as a woman. I’ve told the story many times before. But it felt different to share it among strangers in a fancy townhouse with sparkling chandeliers. More than one person thanked me, and a 20-something reader, with tears in her eyes, said she felt so inspired by my wife’s courage to be herself.

After the readers left, we Books returned to the green room for a debrief. The others were very supportive of my stressful experience with the first group. The Librarians, who had supervised numerous HLs in the New York metro area and Copenhagen, said it was highly unusual to have any arguing or heckling. The vast majority of readers attend the HL events with open minds and hearts. There have not been safety issues or even many awkward moments.

HL events are utopian havens full of open-hearted sharing. I wanted to believe that, but my experience left me a little ambivalent. Was it worthwhile to be so vulnerable in front of strangers? Did it teach me anything? Would I want to use it in an educational setting?

When I talked to Gallager a few days later, we discussed holding HL events in schools, and she expressed hesitancy. She wanted to keep everyone safe, she said, and I agreed that it could be especially risky these days. Gallager’s own title, “Biracial,” wouldn’t be considered controversial or edgy in NYC schools (though perhaps it would be considered “critical race theory” in some regions). Gallager could also imagine the PTSD Book, who had been a medic in Vietnam, being a good choice for a high school history class.

Gallager shared that her favorite experience being a Book was in Copenhagen. A Reader asked how she learned to embrace the two halves of her culture, Irish and Black, and she reflected on reading Langston Hughes for the first time in seventh grade and feeling pride in being Black. After she flew home, she found her middle school diary and flipped to the entry where she wrote about reading Hughes. She wouldn’t have searched for that diary if it hadn’t been for that interaction. The reader’s question “gave me back a part of myself that I had forgotten,” she said.

In Copenhagen, social work students often participate in the HL as part of their training, and in New York students working to become ministers have requested sessions. What if MLS students did the same since we also engage widely with the public? Gallager suggested. There is so much diversity beyond what the eye can see. “You really never know what people are carrying inside them,” she said.

Gallager says her experience with the HL has made her a better school librarian. She is more empathetic, and less inclined to judge others. “Everyone judges,” she says. “If you’re breathing, you’re judging.” The HL offers opportunities to “strengthen our empathy muscles” that librarians need.

I stretched empathy muscles too. It was moving to meet so many people who would give up a Saturday afternoon for heart-to-hearts with strangers. So I agree with Gallager: being a Book made me a better librarian.

Jess DeCourcy Hinds wrote SLJ's May 2023 cover story, “Stress Tested.”

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