By Rukhsana Rahman
During this year’s National Library Week, the YWCA of Gettysburg and Adams County, in collaboration with the Adams County Library System, hosted their inaugural Living Library event. Modeled after the Human Library project from Copenhagen, a diverse array of human “books” offered readers the chance to confront and challenge their preconceptions through the theme, “There is More to the Story.” The enthusiastic response from the volunteer authors and eager participants exceeded the organizers’ expectations.
A Living Library book is an individual who volunteers to share their personal story, having either experienced prejudice or discrimination personally due to their identity or having witnessed it around them. Individuals may also have unique life journeys that could enrich others. People typically choose to become a book because they believe their story can impact another person’s understanding of a particular faith, ethnicity, culture, or identity. The event’s lineup included eight diverse “books,” with authors representing activists, generational farmers, a Jewish couple, homeless individuals, veterans, Muslims, and more. One of the books was even co-authored by a couple. The five-day event featured each “book” in four 30-minute time slots.
I had the opportunity to “borrow” a book titled Two Years in China: Tales from the Middle Kingdom by Brigid Goss, which detailed her experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China. I also served as a book, the title of my book being So Where Are You From: And Other Such Questions. The inspiration for this title came from a question that I am often asked, especially when I am traveling away from home. While it is easy to respond with “America” or “Gettysburg,” my identity has been formulated by a convoluted childhood and adolescence, having grown up and lived in four cities on four continents. While three of the four readers who “checked me out” were community members wanting to learn more about my background, one newcomer to the area was eager to connect with ‘new and interesting people.’ Overall, my purpose as a book was to encourage meaningful conversations and connections with others, regardless of their color or creed.
Although this event utilized an in-person, one-on-one format, other formats can involve reading to small groups of 6-8 people or hosting the event online. The “reading” format can vary from a casual conversation to a 30-minute book reading or anything in between. Conversations frequently extend beyond the allotted time, emphasizing the importance of making the most of the 30-minute window. As an online article wisely advised, “Don’t waste time talking about the weather. Make it personal. Go deep quickly.”
The goal and hope are to have this event or similar ones in the future at different locations, featuring a broader selection of “books,” providing readers with ample choices to challenge their stereotypes. This would promote interfaith, intercultural, and intergenerational exchange of lived experiences. In today’s world of easily accessible, impersonal global news, the Living Library offers a valuable opportunity to learn about history and world cultures through the wealth of wisdom and diversity surrounding us.
Rukhsana Rahman is a longtime supporter and past board member of YWCA Gettysburg & Adams County and a current member of the Adams County Library Board of Trustees.