Living libraries

Living libraries – where, unlike conventional libraries, volunteers from different backgrounds are ‘borrowed’ rather than books – help promote intercultural dialogue and challenge the isolation and stereotyping of minority communities which leads to the stigmatisation of ‘the other’.

The concept originates from the 2000 Roskilde music festival in Denmark, where a youth initiative ‘Stop the Violence’ (Foreningen Stop Volden) gave over a thousand audience members over four days the opportunity to speak face-to-face with one of 75 ‘living books’, their motto being: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Since then, hundreds of human libraries have sprung up across Europe and the wider world, offering people a shared space to break down cultural barriers – at festivals, in schools and online forums, even aboard travelling buses.

These initiatives have helped counter rumours that may develop around recent migrants in relation to a perceived reliance on welfare payments, favourable treatment from public services, low educational attainment and an unwillingness to integrate. In 2014, the Bavarian city of Erlangen hosted a giant picnic across a 180-metre table bringing together over 1000 participants including many recently-accommodated asylum seekers. At the ‘Picknick Bankett’ citizens of Erlangen were invited to reveal prejudices and rumours about refugees in everyday conversations and to debunk them with facts, under the slogan “Don’t parrot, enquire!” Supported by council offices, NGOs, artists and local businesses from breweries to flower shops, asylum seekers were informally asked questions not usually posed when meeting strangers, talking openly about their lives, talents, skills, experiences and dreams.

Other anti-rumour campaigns in Europe bringing together people from different cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds include the Polish city of Lublin’s ‘Rumour Exchange’ where people would write on large blank posters outside the Centre of Culture the widespread rumours they had heard around both Lubliners and migrants, engaging the local community away from the anonymity of digital platforms and contributing to public reflection on how prejudice can develop; the Greek city of Patras which hosts workshops encouraging dialogue between long-serving prisoners of diverse origins living in a close environment, and the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ outreach scheme where artists and migrant rights groups tell stories and role-play with young people; and the Catalan city of Sabadell where migrant women volunteers from different countries developed themed public buffets over four weeks, cooking alongside students and designing anti-rumour literature on everything from placemats to aprons.

“We want to disarm people, we want to help fight prejudices… When they talk to one another, they re-think their own positions.”
— Ronni Abergel, a co-founder of the first ‘Living Library’