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Human library promotes cross-cultural tolerance, celebrates diversity

Syracuse University Libraries held the second annual human library event on Wednesday, which replaces books with people in order to share stories of different cultures.

For the event, participants were able to check out a “human book” and have a conversation with that person for about 20 minutes about their cultural background. The purpose of the event was to gain a greater understanding of the other person and of different cultures in general, said Abby Kasowitz-Scheer, an associate librarian for Learning Commons in Bird Library.

Kasowitz-Scheer said the event coordinators sent out surveys based on last year’s event to determine what topics should be covered. This year, there were 16 human books covering topics such as autism and bullying, and included people from different cultures including Native American and Egyptian.

The reason SU Libraries first offered the event last year was because of an effort to have a community-wide human library, Kasowitz-Scheer said. Libraries around central New York were all offering events during the month of April since it’s when National Library Week takes place.

Consequently, SU Libraries got together with other libraries in Onondaga County and agreed to host similar events around the same time.

“The first human library was held in 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark and the purpose of that event was to challenge prejudices and stop violence between people who didn’t understand each other,” Kasowitz-Scheer said. “So that’s where our whole concept came from.”

Tarida Anantachai, an assistant librarian for Learning Commons in Bird Library, described the human library event as a celebration of human diversity. She said it was an international initiative created as a safe environment to encourage people from different backgrounds to come together and learn from each other.

“It’s more interactive than just checking out a book,” she said. “You get to check out a person.”

Anantachai said the purpose of the event was to encourage people who might not normally interact with each other to actually do so. She said it allows people to challenge assumptions and promote tolerance amongst each other.

In order to relate to the message of the human library, topics discussed should have either been about culture, life experiences or anything that would challenge stereotypes and break down prejudices, Kasowitz-Scheer said.

Pamela McLaughlin, director of communications and external relations, said as people came forward as prospective human books, they were put up against the marker of whether or not their stories encouraged diversity. She said it was important to have a variety of different books and she is happy that there was a good range this year.

“We are all in this world together, and I think more and more people are interacting through social media online,” she said. “And that makes it more important to interact face to face and have real conversations about what life is all about.”

Kasowitz-Scheer said what she hoped the event accomplished was to successfully bring a lot of people together.

She wanted them to engage in a wide range of conversations that will eventually open their minds to different experiences and “expand their understandings on different topics and know that the library is a safe environment to share and speak your mind.”

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