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Michelle’s commentary on books, digital publishing and intersections between fiction & reality

In Denmark, The Human Library lets you “check out” people as books

Don't judge a book by its cover
September 23, 2021

Over two decades ago, the concept of a Human Library was berthed in Copenhagen. Now, The Human Library Organization exists in over 80 different countries where readers can check out a human book and learn to un-judge others.

The concept is relatively straightforward: readers can take a book on loan—as would happen in any other library—except the story being told is oral, not written, and comes directly from another person.

Via the library’s site:

The Human Library is designed to build a positive framework for conversations that can challenge stereotypes and prejudices through dialogue. The Human Library is a place where real people are on loan to readers. A place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered. 

Each person in the library has a title—whether that be “alcoholic,” “homeless,” “refugee,” or any other name that’s often associated with stereotypes. By having a direct conversation with someone who self-identifies as this title, readers are able to directly confront any internal biases that may even be unrecognized.

Nichola Swallow was named Denmark’s “book of the month” for June after becoming a book herself following her participation as a reader:

It is an amazing opportunity to hear stories that people would otherwise never share with you, and it has made me realize that I have biases that I didn’t even know about…Being a volunteer in the Human Library makes you understand perspectives from people around the globe, as you are exposed to a lot of different life experiences.

Simply reading about her individual experience is moving. She joined the library to challenge stereotypes surrounding eating disorders. My favorite line is what she said upon reflecting how being a book had impacted her:

The interaction with the Readers makes me look at myself differently. Like maybe I should be a bit more kind to myself. 

It’s such an extremely personal, raw experience that makes so much sense. Stories found in fiction have the power to be impactful—but hearing directly from another individual about their life and being able to ask questions is such a unique setting is something completely different.

A project like this has the ability to change how people behave and view others, permanently. A study they conducted found that readers were conscious of their own increased sensitivity towards diversity that goes beyond the physical appearance.

How often do we have the opportunity to sit with a stranger and learn about them—and in turn ourselves—in a structured, open environment?

Not often. I spent a summer in Newport Beach in 2018 freelancing for The Orange County Register and some of my assignments involved crafting feature/profile stories on prominent individuals in the community.


One story I wrote was on a 97-year-old woman named Muriel Engelman who was being awarded France’s highest honor for her World War II service. I had the opportunity to sit with her for an hour, interrupted, and learn about her experiences and the life she led. She was happy to answer any and all questions.

She was one of the kindest, most humble individuals I’ve ever met and I can confidently say that the hour I spent with her vastly changed my outlook on life. When I asked her how it felt to be receiving such a prestigious honor, she didn’t have much to say on that front, “You know, I didn’t do anything different than the rest of our nurses did.”

Instead, she had much more to say on the moments she lived through and the times she shared with her fellow nurses. It was an incredible story and she was kind enough to gift me a signed copy of her memoir, Stop the Clock.

I can confidently say that reading about her life will never compare to sitting across the table from her, drinking tea and listening to her relay those stories directly.

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