A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Human Library: Sharing the Community with Itself

by Erin Wentz on April 26, 2013

Human libraries function similarly to other libraries except that in a human library, people—rather than books—are available for checkout. Those who volunteer to be “human books” are “people with a particular personal experience or perspective on life” and have often been stereotyped in some way.1 The human books agree to converse openly with other members of the community, called “readers.” Anyone who wants to participate in the program can be a reader. After browsing through a catalog with a title and a description for each book, a reader selects a book to check out for a short period of time. The reader then meets the book for a one-on-one conversation. Readers are able to ask questions, seek advice, learn about alternate perspectives, and find common ground. The conversations have no prescribed direction and develop organically, making each loan period unique.

Human libraries originated in Denmark back in 20002 but the idea has since taken off. The first human libraries in the United States were held in 2008 by the Bainbridge Public Library (BPL) in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library (SMPL).3 BPL’s event completely filled up with readers. By the end of the program, the branch had begun to let small groups check out the books together in order to let more people participate. SMPL’s two events, which lasted a total of nine hours, had more than 250 participants.4 In Lismore, Australia, public demand led the city to establish a regular, monthly human-library program.5 Conversations there continue to frequently run over the official checkout period. In June 2011, the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association (ALA) even sponsored a human library at the ALA Annual Conference.6

Why Public Libraries Should Conduct Human Library Programs

The human library was modeled after existing libraries, which makes a library well-prepared for holding one of these events. A human library requires the creation of a catalog with short descriptions of each of the books, the issuing of library cards, the establishment of a checkout procedure, and the adherence to other functions that libraries perform on a daily basis.7 The need to provide a wide selection of materials in order to develop a “balanced collection” transfers from the public library to the human library.8 Librarians’ experience facilitates the organization and the operation of the human library. In addition, patrons who already utilize the public library as a community resource may stumble upon the program and become readers. Public libraries provide a suitable setting for this type of program.

Furthermore, the human library meshes with the intention behind public libraries. The public library serves as a public forum and as a place for the exchange of ideas.9 Most public libraries also define themselves in part as places for people to find information and as places where people learn.10 The human library provides a place for people, both readers and books, to frankly explore ideas through one-on-one dialogues.11 As Deborah Jacobs, former city librarian at Seattle Public Library, noted, this sharing of information continues libraries’ efforts to present multiple viewpoints for users to consider.12 The library’s mission of providing a neutral, safe space for learning provides an open environment which invites readers to ask probing questions.13 The human library acts as an extension of the mission that drives public libraries.

The human library project presents public libraries with opportunities to reach out to other organizations. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt,14 for example, reached out to new organizations as well as to those they had worked with previously. They reinforced existing relationships and fostered new connections. Networking extends to other libraries or organizations, within the US and abroad, that have already held a human library.15 BPL and SMPL, the organizers of the first two human libraries in the United States, conversed and shared resources after discovering each other.16 Partnering with these other organizations increases the library’s resource base, people power, and reach, an it raises the library’s profile in the community. Such cooperation counteracts, to some extent, the idea that the library is expendable. Strengthening ties to other organizations, through the human library and other programs, reinforces the library’s value to the community.

More importantly, the human library further connects the library to the public. The organizers, ideally, match the program to local circumstances. Because the books and the readers come from the community, local context necessarily influences the program. Through the program, the public library shares the  community with itself,providing a venue for individuals to articulate their experiences and to communicate with one another.17 Books tend to have little opportunity to share their experiences during their day-to-day lives. Participating in the human library provides them with a chance to be heard. Books and readers bond and find the interaction beneficial. The enthusiastic response most events have received indicates that the human library fulfills an unmet need. Making these personal connections brings the community together. Providing the human library program weaves the library more tightly into the fabric of the community.

Media attention and public interest demonstrate the program’s worth and also promote the library. By holding a human library, the public library seems innovative.18 Public libraries may capitalize on the idea’s newness. SMPL received local, national, and international press coverage for its program and the BPL event generated considerable publicity and many notes of thanks in local newspapers.19 The Human Library Organisation agrees, having stated that: “Events such as this help to reaffirm the public library as an integral part of developing community relations and social cohesion. The library becomes a place for meaningful social interaction among its patrons, and this adds some new dimensions to the diversity of activities already taking place in the public library sector.”20 This program acts as positive public relations for the library.

Hosting a Human Library Program

Although each library hosting a human library will need to determine specifics, the general process is the same. First, the library needs to contact the Human Library Organisation and register the event with them.21 In addition to granting permission to use the human library concept, they provide a guidebook and other helpful support. Then, the library should establish a planning committee, which can be as few as two people. This committee decides how to recruit books, where and when the event will be held, how long the event will be, how long an individual checkout period will be, and other logistical details.22 As with any library program, the library needs to market the event. The committee should work with each book to create a brief but informative catalog entry to let readers know what is unique about that book and then collate these descriptions into one easy-to-use catalog.23 Before the actual event, the committee should hold at least one orientation session to let books know what to expect, allow them to practice, and to introduce the books to one another.24 With careful planning, each public library will create a human library that will be successful in its community.

Because others have set a precedent, public libraries may benefit from accumulated experience. International organizations have been holding human libraries since the year 2000. In that time, these organizations have learned from mistakes, formulated strategies, and developed resources. The Human Library Organisation collects much of this information on its website. Those who have held human libraries have provided detailed guides, analyses of individual libraries’ experiences, and sample documents for others to use. Suggestions from these experienced sources include interviewing potential books before the event,25 holding the program during normal library hours, and holding the event in one central location. Recruiting Books is the most demanding part of organizing a human library. The work of these pioneering libraries saves time and effort for those interested in holding the program.


More public libraries in the United States should join the international movement to hold human libraries. The function and perception of the library accommodate the human library program. Similarly, the objective of the public library supports the mission of the human library. By implementing human libraries, public libraries integrate themselves even further into the community, making them stronger. Public libraries may follow the example set by preceding programs to implement a human library without wasting time, energy, or resources. The crucial time has arrived; momentum for the program has built but enthusiasm has not yet waned. PL


  1. Rebecca Judd, Julie MacDonald, and Rachel Foyt, “Living Library Project: Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” [webinar], accessed May 16, 2012.
  2. The Human Library Organisation, “The History of the Human Library,” accessed Apr. 25, 2012.
  3. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Lucy Kinsley, “Lismore’s Living Library: Connecting Communities through Conversation,” Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services 22, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 20–25.
  6. ALAConnect, “2011 Annual Conference and Exhibition: The Human Library: Where People are the Books,” accessed Apr. 25, 2012, http://connect
  7. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project”; Nick Little et al., Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Living Library Organiser’s Guide 2011 (Budapest, Hungary: Youth Department of the Council of Europe, European Youth Centre Budapest, 2011), accessed May 7, 2012.
  8. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project.”
  9. Kinsley, “Lismore’s Living Library”; American Library Association, “Guidelines for the Development and Implementation of Policies, Regulations and Procedures Affecting Access to Library Materials, Services and Facilities,” accessed Apr. 25, 2012.
  10. Kevin Harris and Linda Constable, “‘Like a Light Going On:’ The Report on the Local Living Library Project,” accessed May 10, 2012.
  11. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project”; The Human Library Organisation, “What Do the Books Say about Being on Loan,” accessed Apr.25, 2012, http://humanlibrary.org./what-do-books-say.html.
  12. Michael Wood and Deanna Sukkar, “They Call It the Living Library” [podcast], InfoSpeak 1, no. 2, accessed May 10, 2012.
  13. Harris and Constable, “Like a Light Going On”; The Human Library Organisation, “What Is a Living Book?” accessed Apr. 25, 2012.
  14. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project.”
  15. The Human Library Organisation, “How to Become an Organizer,” accessed Apr. 25, 2012.
  16. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project.”
  17. Harris and Constable, “Like a Light Going On.”
  18. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project.”
  19. Ibid.
  20. The Human Library Organisation, “Settings for a Human Library,” accessed Apr. 25, 2012.
  21. The Human Library Organisation, “How to Become an Organizer.”
  22. Judd, MacDonald, and Foyt, “Living Library Project’; Abergel et al., Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. The Human Library Organisation, “Recruiting Books,” accessed Apr.25, 2012.