The ascendance of podcasts, TED talks, and even reality TV shows is evidence of people’s thirst for stories, especially true stories told by the people who have lived them. Stories are how we feel connected — through self-expression when we take on the role of storyteller, and appreciation and empathy for others when we are listeners. Libraries have long offered access to many stories — in the form of paper books, ebooks, audio books, and movies. But some libraries have experimented with a more intimate, individual, community-oriented approach to connecting through stories. Enter the Human Library.
The Human Library Project (HLP) began in Denmark in 2000 and has since grown into a nonprofit platform inspiring events in many dozens of countries across the globe (Human Library Organization, 2020). The main idea of HLP is to promote direct, human-to-human learning in real time and in person by allowing users to “check out” a fellow human with deep knowledge of certain subject, especially relating to identity, status or life experience that the user wants to learn more about. The focus is on fostering conversations that help promote understanding and empathy across demographics (Wentz, 2012). Libraries that offer the HLP model do so as discrete events — that is, they have a Human Library day rather than, say, have the human “books” always available like other circulating materials. I propose hosting this human-centered innovation where I work — the Excelsior branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The initial plan involves putting on one event as a pilot with the possibility of making it a regular event, perhaps monthly or quarterly.
Purpose and Benefits
The purpose of hosting HLP at SFPL’s Excelsior branch is to galvanize the social connection that happens at the library and to increase the extent to which the library is identified as a unique and valued third place, a place to connect with others outside of the home and workplace. The type of knowledge sharing that HLP fosters can motivate people to come to the library and increase local esteem for the library (Huang, Dobreski, & Xia, 2017, p. 1160). It also constitutes a participatory service, where community members and library patrons are not just users but active providers of information to one another. This will help increase patrons’ sense of ownership, a belief that the library is theirs, what they make of it.
Community and Library Profile
SFPL’s Excelsior branch serves a neighborhood of roughly 40,000 people, in which ¾ of all households are classified as family households (San Francisco Planning Department, 2017, p. 16). The neighborhood is majority non-white, with nearly half of the population identifying as Asian, one-third Latino, and 17% identifying as “other” or two or more races. 54% of Excelsior residents are foreign born, making it the second highest immigrant district in the city after Chinatown. Languages other than English are spoken in 72% of households in the Excelsior. Educational attainment is low compared to other neighborhoods of San Francisco; roughly half of adult residents’ highest level of education was identified as high school or less, and only 6% of adult residents reported having a professional or graduate degree.
The Excelsior branch serves this diverse community by offering generous collections of English, Spanish, and Chinese materials for all ages as well as a medium collection of Filipino materials and assorted materials in other languages. Various staff at Excelsior are fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and Spanish and thus able to offer direct service to patrons who are monolingual in those languages. In addition, the branch has several other staff members who possess basic conversational Spanish and can help provide basic services to Spanish-speaking patrons. Children’s storytimes and various other programs are offered in English, Chinese and Spanish.
The Excelsior branch’s staff of librarians and support staff totals twenty people, with seven of those positions being full-time.
Description of Users We Wish To Engage
With this program, we wish to engage users who may not have ever participated in library events or who have done so only passively. We encourage the participation of people who want to assume an active role in sharing their knowledge and life experiences with others who are interested in learning from them. We especially want to recruit participants who may not have experience being viewed as an authority, giving them an opportunity to share their knowledge and stories with strangers for the first time. We also recognize that our most avid users will have an interest in this program, too, and we encourage their participation as well. A combination of old and new faces will make this program strong and help our library’s present grow into our library’s future.
Evidence and Resources to Support Service
While it appears that some libraries have used the general HLP model without officially coordinating with Denmark’s Human Library Project Organization, we will begin our event planning process by applying with the organization to be officially recognized as an affiliated event. According to their webpage, no San Francisco public library location has ever hosted an HLP event through them. The only past participants in San Francisco are a few K-12 schools and a community college. Leaning on the Human Library Organization’s two decades of experience and the supportive materials they provide will help ensure that our event has a solid foundation. Other resources we will look to will include OCLC’s Webjunction (Living Library Project, n.d.), which has an archive of resources from other libraries that have put on these events. Resources at Webjunction include webinars, signage and promotional materials. The conference paper by Huang, Dobreski and Xia (2017) also contains thorough case studies with plenty of wisdom and recommendations for running human library programs.
Action Brief Statements
Statement for readers: With our HLP events, we seek to convince users and non-users that by attending our HLP events and checking out human “books” they will learn new things about the lives and experiences of their fellow community members, which will help strengthen our neighborhood because conversations help people understand one another and build connection.
Statement for volunteer “books”: With our HLP events, we seek to convince users and non-users that by volunteering to be a human “book” they will be providing unique learning opportunities to fellow community members, which will strengthen our neighborhood because conversations help people build connection with one another.
Funding and Staffing Considerations
All “books” and readers will be participating as volunteers. The three core staff of the HLP committee (see Action Steps below) will need to be in charge of running the event. To help cover their normal work at the branch, budgeting for two substitute workers from SFPL for the 4-5 hours of the event will be necessary. The HLP committee lead will seek approval from the Chief of Branches office for this expenditure of additional labor hours. Funding for equipment and supplies is minimal. The event will take place in Excelsior’s program room, the only equipment needs will be the display for showing check-in and check-out, options for which include using an easel or two, or a projector connected to a laptop in the program room itself. The community room is already equipped with a computer and a projector.
Promotion and Marketing
Promotion will include physical and online posters and flyering, weekly posts to SFPL’s social media accounts (especially Instagram, which has by far the greatest engagement of SF library users of all the major social media platforms), and small posters at all library branches in the south east district. A large, lifesize cutout human book poster will be stood up just inside the entrance of the Excelsior branch. This display will give information first for recruiting “books” and then, once enough books have been recruited and the event day draws nearer, it will advertise the event itself. The event will also be highlighted in the monthly program brochures for both the Excelsior branch and the SFPL system as a whole. The web calendars will highlight the event as well, including as one of the slides on the splash page of SFPL.org. Community organizations that have either direct or tangential connections to the book subjects being represented will also be given flyers and brochures to distribute to their constituents.
Action Steps and Timeline
- Propose event to Excelsior’s branch manager.
- After branch manager’s approval, form an HLP event committee of at least three branch staff members — ideally at least one librarian, one advanced paraprofessional staff, and one page. (Recruit via conversation and email, making sure to communicate the announcement to all branch staff.)
- Schedule initial meeting for HLP committee.
- Hold meeting and collaboratively answer the application questions on https://humanlibrary.org/human-library-organizers/organizer/. At meeting, decide on roles: logistics lead, visual marketing lead, event setup lead.
- Apply for official affiliation at Humanlibrary.org and then wait for approval from Human Library Organization (potentially 4 weeks).
- Schedule the HLP event on a weekend day at least 2 months out. Make sure no other major branch or neighborhood events conflict.
- Hold second committee meeting to discuss current state of event planning, go over questions and uncertainties, and get ready for next steps.
- Design marketing posters and other images for social media dissemination and flyering/posting at the branch and other branches and community spaces.
- Begin recruiting “books” and readers via social media, posters at the branch, the library website and event calendars, and word of mouth. Reach out to community groups to seek out volunteer “books” if reinforcements are needed. Several volunteers to assist running the program may also be recruited.
- Design and finalize check-in/check-out system. Either use projector or purchase or repurpose easels for the event, which will show the “book” collection and check in/check out status for books.
- Design surveys and other evaluation tools to help gauge success of event.
- Host event!
- Hold a meeting to review evaluations and discuss how the event went.
Huang, Dobreski, & Xia (2017) recommend that HLP-style events explore moving away from paper surveys in favor of digital systems for evaluation (p. 1162). In that spirit, a Survey Monkey or GoogleForm that auto-populates into a spreadsheet and can present the data instantly in graphs and other visualization would be helpful and spare staff the additional labor of having to manually collate and code numerous written responses.
To gauge patron satisfaction, we will have separate online surveys for both books and readers, asking what they liked about the program, what they didn’t like, and ways to improve potential future versions. We will also interview any other volunteers involved in the program to get their perspective on how the program was run.
The following attendance data will be tracked: number of readers, number of books, length of sessions.
Excelsior | San Francisco Public Library (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://sfpl.org/locations/excelsior
Huang, Y., Dobreski, B., Xia, H. (2017). Human library: Understanding experience sharing for community knowledge building. Proceedings of the 2017 ACM conference on computer supported cooperative work and social computing, p. 1152-1165. ACM Digital Library. DOI: 10.1145/2998181.2998312
Human Library Organization. (2020). http://humanlibrary.org/
Living Library Project: Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover. (n.d.). https://www.webjunction.org/events/webjunction/Living_Library_Project_Dont_Judge_a_Book_By_Its_Cover.html
San Francisco Planning Department. (2017). “San Francisco Neighborhoods Socio-Economic Profiles: American Community Survey 2010-2014. Retrieved from: https://default.sfplanning.org/publications_reports/SF_NGBD_SocioEconomic_Profiles/2010-2014_ACS_Profile_Neighborhoods_v3AH.pdf
Wentz, E. (2012). The human library: Sharing the community with itself. Public Libraries, 51(3), 3, 38–40.