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Tekla (right) sharing her story with two readers (left) about navigating academia with multiple sclerosis. (Pattie Chen/UC Davis Library)

Human Library Fosters Connections, Community, Common Ground

What is it like to be homeless? To have a child with autism, or a drug addiction? What do you assume it would be like… and what might you learn if you talked face-to-face with someone who had actually lived it?

These are just a few of the topics that were explored at the inaugural Human Library at UC Davis event.

Fifty students, faculty, alumni and community members came together at Shields Library on May 24, 2018 to ask questions, share stories, and have one-on-one conversations that challenge stereotypes, prejudices and preconceived ideas.

Vickie, one of the six books at the Human Library. (Pattie Chen/UC Davis Library)

Modeled after an international movement for social change called the Human Library, the Human Library at UC Davis is an event where people are the “books” who offer their stories to “readers” through 20-minute conversations.

“Every one of the ‘books’ I ‘checked out’ told a difficult and personal story with a positivity and hopefulness that I found really inspiring,” said Laci Gerhart-Barley, a new teaching professor in UC Davis’ Evolution and Ecology Department.

Six “books” shared their stories of being homeless, surviving sexual trauma and depression, finding happiness and success despite discrimination or disability, dealing with a loved one’s addiction, and raising a child with autism. However, books were not limited to simply telling their stories. Because of the Human Library’s flexible format, both books and readers were able to exchange insights on the topics.

Tekla, a “book” who shared her experience being a scholar with a disability, said, “The most powerful moment for me was when I got to be a ‘reader’ as the people I was talking with opened up about their own stories. Some students wanted to learn how to deal with getting medical accommodations — and some had ideas to share with me.”

Dave Campbell, chair of the Chancellor’s Affordable Student Housing Task Force (left), discussing student homelessness with Stephanie (right). (Pattie Chen/UC Davis Library)

Among the other topics discussed, Stephanie’s story about being homeless as an undergraduate brought attention to the student housing problem at UC Davis.

“Stephanie’s story, told in such a straightforward and thoughtful way, reinforced how distinctive each individual’s experience will be and how the label “homeless” often carries presumptions that don’t always hold in individual cases,” said Dave Campbell, associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and chair of the Chancellor’s Affordable Student Housing Task Force.

“Don’t judge a book cover”

Supported by a 2017 UC Davis Diversity and Inclusion Innovation grant, the Human Library at UC Davis is designed to remind us all not to judge a book by its cover. As a safe environment where “readers” can ask honest questions and hear about life experiences different — and then, perhaps not so different — from their own, the Human Library encourages participants to challenge their own assumptions by making personal, human connections.

By the end of the evening, many participants had discovered new insights they plan to apply in their own lives and relationships.

“I came away with new ideas about how I can better serve others who have had experiences like these,” said Margaret Merrill, a staff member in Academic Technology Services. “It was a really good reminder of how much we all have in common.”

Until next time

The UC Davis Library hopes to host more Human Library events in the coming academic year. Whether you have a story of your own to share or are just interested in attending as a “reader”, please sign up here so that we can contact you about future events.

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