The Method

The Human Library is an international project born in Denmark in 2000. Right after a racist hate crime, the Association Stop the Violence founded a library of book-people with the aim of telling stories that would overcome prejudices against ethnicity, gender identity, disability, religion, etc. Since 2003 the initiative has been recognised as a good practice by the European Council, and it has been encouraged and spread around the world.

The Format

There have been many Human Library experiences, in Italy as well.

In 2014 we attended an international educational class backed up by the European Union, whose objective was to discuss around possible future developments of this activity – besides coaching Associations and professionals on these processes. The aim was to organise multiple Living Library projects across 10 European countries. In 20-month time, new paths and best practices will be shared.

The association Municipale Teatro[1] won a European competition thanks to: Enrico Gentina, art director, teacher, and cultural professional; Marco Pollarolo, anthropologist with 10-year experience in international co-operation, and partner of the ethnopsychiatry-focused Mamre Onlus association; and Monica Prato, psychotherapist at Mamre, and actress.

Back to Italy, very determined after the experience and the mandate we received, we started thinking – together with the City and the Progetto Tenda co-operative – about a wider project with a Living Library format.

Living Library is basically an event where real people tell their stories – not paper books, but “living books”.

Every one tells a story that he/she has lived, for 20 minutes, to anyone who would like to listen to it. So, one “reader” at a time.

The “booksellers” guide the participants through the choice of the stories that may be of interest for them. Who listens to the stories can interact in a “one-to-one” relationship – just like in front of a paper book – with the main character/narrator of the story.

We have tried to better find out the potentialities of an idea that perfectly matches with our work history, which is focused upon an on-going consideration of narration and word themes, as well as of prejudice-related and discrimination issues. We have built a project idea that can involve whoever does not generally participate in initiatives related to these matters.

[1] City theatre

Once upon a time, there was a person whose life was so perfect that there were no stories to tell (PLOTS – PETER BROOKS)

Try to not collude with prejudice

The issue of defining different “types of books” has always been of great interest for us. In our 15-year experience in this field, this is something that began at an early stage and keeps going on now that we run our own project.

Living libraries have often been set up either by associations and social organisations committed in sensitising upon and defending a particular issue, or by public entities that set up ad-hoc Living Libraries.

Hundreds of Living Libraries have been set up all around the world. Every time it was communicated where and when they would have taken place, and what they would have talked about – migrant stories, stories about violence against women, about racism and discrimination, about stigma and disgrace.

The book-people were acting as representatives, witnesses, or victims, voluntarily bringing about one anecdote of their life as a real story. And they were giving this as a gift to their “readers”.

While thinking about planning our own Living Library in Turin, we started realising that trying not to identify specific Living books’ “categories” could be a good idea – or, anyway, we would better not to focus our communication and the single events on this.

To sum up, our conclusion was: “if our goal is to work against prejudice, won’t we strengthen such prejudice by creating an event in which people are presented based on the category they belong to?”

Identifying people as migrants, homosexuals, African, psychiatric patients, etc. – and organising an event whose main characters belong to specific categories – may, in fact, set forth a ”substantial” differentiation between who is (black, migrant, homosexual) and who is not – between who is “normal” and the “others”.

We have actually noticed that some Living libraries have accidently risked to covertly say that the readers are “normal” and the books are “different”, “strange”.

The objective of the Living Library has always been to sensitise against prejudices. The mechanism is clear: by “closely” relating to someone, listening to him/her and looking at him/her in the eye, we can revise our prejudices and realise their fallacy.

Earlier we have said: in this project we try not to collude with any people categorisation. We have done so since the beginning by the language we have use and the way we have communicated.

We have started to assert that the stories included in our Living Libraries would not be of interest just because they are stories of people with peculiar and uncommon features.

We have chosen to focus the events on the narrative dimension, by moving such focus if needed, reflecting upon peculiar issues, and gathering “uncategorised” Living books.

We started with the assumption that we would have identified a hundred stories.

We deliberately wanted to go through the paradox of creating events related to discrimination, prejudice, and stigma, by never naming them. These are “unmarked” events not to be addressed only to the “usual audience” that is already involved in social issues.

The events bind to the narration; they take place in ad-hoc locations, which aim at hosting narrative initiatives that exclude integration and prejudice (the Musical library, the Circolo dei Lettori[1], the Holden School) – where people are in the spotlight, with their experience, will to share, and curiosity to meet other people.

A “prejudice-free” event, eloquent as such.

We have promised ourselves that we would have invited people with a story to tell, chosen some main topics – not general topics, but interesting issues that do not refer to peculiar prejudices or discrimination –, and presented the living libraries according to the related matters.

What about the integration? Let us go through this, starting from our stories’ catalogue.

Living books of any editions belong to different categories – although they are not written. There are no labels on the material that the audience receives for choosing which story to listen to; there are just the name of the narrator and the implicit declaration that he/she has a nice story to tell: a story about a teacher, a friend, love or a rite of passage.

For sure books are people with different origins, age, experience and perspectives. However, they are presented just with a title summarising the main topic of their story.

From the press release of our first events:

Living Library. Stories about men and women. Stories about ourselves.

What if people were books? What if we could leaf through the most intimate pages of an unknown soul? What if we could listen to his/her voice and read his/her story and emotions in the eyes? Living Library is a project that – with delicacy and authenticity – lets people live this unusual experience through a series of 3 events, every one of which focuses upon a peculiar issue: teachers, friendship, love (September, November, December). The main characters/books are men and women willing to share a meaningful event of their life. They are ordinary people, Italians as well as foreigners. Some of them are socially committed; others are witnesses of incredible experiences. Who reads them will be able to interact with them and explore their path further.

Stories are sometimes funny, other times melancholic or adventurous; they embrace different traits of one person’s life. They can also be stories about music and musicians along narrative paths made by words and executions. The Living Library represents a way to find out ourselves through “them”, becoming passionate about their stories – just like we do when we read a book in one go. This is an opportunity to get unexpected answers to questions that we have not even asked – or that we have never dared to ask. It is also an opportunity to understand how people, although they are often deeply different to one another, are bound by universal feelings and reactions.

From the catalogue including a synopsis of every story – besides the title of the story and the name of the narrator – you may notice the foreign name of the author or the subject regarding a long trip, or some reference to Africa. However, this is not the reason why the stories are there. They are not interesting because they are exotic nor because they talk about strangers and victims.

This is a key starting point in the relationship with the books and in all the work carried out for writing the stories. When the book meets the bookseller and they try together to define the details of the story and its structure if needed, they also choose a title and agree upon a few lines of synopsis.

Since the beginning, every one has felt involved as an individual – and not as a member of a specific group.

The question was whether they had a story – related to the chosen topics – that they would have been willing to share. When the people invited took part in special projects such as the S.P.R.A.R. programme or a Mental Health Institute, the request for them has always been: “do you have a story on this?”; and not: “given that you belong to the category X, can you tell me a story about X?”.

The real challenge was – besides the association project partnerships – to build up a network that would be able to spread the invitation to becoming a book, in order to create multi-coloured catalogues, which are heterogeneous enough to put the single person in the spotlight

[1] The Readers’ Society

You are not lost until you have a good story to tell and somebody to listen to it. (A. Baricco, from “Novecento”)

Creating a Community Thanks to Storytelling

We have seen how and by which purpose Living Libraries were born and spread around the world. We have highlighted how the “Voices and Faces[1]” project – inspired by the Living Libraries’ European experience – aimed at fighting against prejudices and stereotypes by freeing itself from the “migrant” category. The objective was to work on connections, similarities, and varieties; starting from what binds rather than what discriminates, in fact, can promote integration. If we cannot forget about categories because we need them to better understand the world itself, we can always think of them as ideas with vague, unravelled, and permeable outlines. Doing so, we foster dialogue and intercultural communication.

In “Voices and Faces” the verbal narration is inspired by universal subjects – teachers, friendship, love, and rites of passage. This “gives shape” to what people have experienced. The “book-people” – or simply the “books” – commit the “bookseller” – a sort of story dedicated portfolio – to act as an editor and first-listener of the stories.

Since the narration is oral, the storytelling will change its shape as it is shared face-to-face with the readers. This poetic knot of relationships highlights how “sharing stories” means creating and consolidating a community.

The power of narration is a permanent Living feature. By “sharing” these stories we can improve our understanding of who we are, and we can realise multiple traits of our personality and experience. The power of storytelling is part of the Living species and it has been a long-time practice; by sharing stories we elaborate our experiences, we recognise ourselves and get recognised as: unique, fragile, different, strangers, strong, ambiguous, heroes, sailors, sedentary, nice, ugly, good, and bad; simply, Living.

The story is generally a continuous attempt to put everything in its right place so that we do not live a mere empirical sequence of events and we can give meaning to what we have lived thanks to a story plot.[2]

Storytelling improves the understanding of ourselves and the actions that slip away. Telling stories about ourselves helps us get ready to this understanding, by recognising – meaning becoming aware of – what we have experienced. This “recognition” organises our memories into a story, by ordering thoughts and memories according to the plot.

Such a plot is the way by which our lives take on a meaning strictly related to the shape that the story has given them.

The story selects, cuts, and organises the events by an abstract construction that gives a meaning to the events themselves. Stories with a beginning and an end are not validated in real life: limitations, boundaries, beginnings and conclusions have an artificial character that comes from the inclination of seeking for a specific meaning. Narration is the act by which someone tells something to some others, in a specific situation. Every one of us can tell something, and we do so in different moments of our days and of our lives, because storytelling is part of our daily conversations.[3]

Just like Benjamin argues[4], the modern age abruptly distances itself from that old narrative experience that used to define itself as a “community”. The “Voices and Faces” project contributes to recreating occasions in which storytelling – telling about oneself – gets people close thanks to their experiences, by highlighting an intrinsic ludic connotation as well as the pleasure of storytelling and of listening. When we listen to or read a story we are in a physical world where the narration occurs and, at the same time, in an imaginary world where the story takes place.

In the Living Library face-to-face meetings, the narration unfolds as a situation during which one person takes the floor and the other becomes a listener. The first one becomes the main character of the storytelling activity; however, the latter is everything but passive, since he/she proactively interprets the content being told. “The reader” – as a recipient of the story – can interrupt, ask questions, and tell fragments and anecdotes that he/she recalls. Every story refers to other stories and suggests how everything is bound. Narrative pieces, in fact, multiply our relationship network, and the stories – when are being told – have a strong impact on the relationship between the storyteller and the listener.

The story being given to the “reader” recalls and modernises events, situations, and characters linked to the “narrator-book” that connects everything into a plot with a clear narrative thread. In the beginning, it could seem awkward to entrust an unknown audience – even though in a safe and intimate context – to listen to our story; the sensation that others may not be interested in our experiences may prevail. Often, we believe not to have the power of storytelling nor of giving shape and meaning to our daily life and its extraordinary events – which we consider as such right when we share them with somebody.

Who tells a story of his/her own experiences, a fragment of his/her life, inevitably evokes relationships and people who have been part of this story. The storyteller – the “book” –reads again and interprets the world and the time he/she has experience, by picking all the minor details and connecting them to one another; sharing these detailed stories with another person contributes to putting together the fundamental relationships that recall the idea of community.

Sharing stories through a living library – along the lines of the “Voices and Faces” project – implies the creation of a narrative space that interrupts the transition flow of no-stop city walks and daily shallowness that prevent us from looking at the details and the shades. By storytelling ourselves, we share our own experience; habits somehow change, and so do our point of view and judgment criteria. Sharing such stories fosters complexity and multiplicity of life, and the general understanding is not subjected to extreme simplifications that may deprive it of its wider and deeper meaning.

[1] Voci e Volti

[2] You look at me, you speak to me [Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti] A. Cavarero; Ed. Feltrinelli 2001

[3] Ordinary stories. Narration in daily life [Storie comuni. La narrazione nella vita quotidiana]; P. Jedlowsky, Ed. Mondadori Bruno 2000

[4] The Narrator; Observations upon Nikolaj Leskov’s work [Il Narratore; Considerazioni sull’opera di Nikolaj Leskov]; W. Benjamin Ed. Einaudi 2011

Story, narration and verbal approach

The story is always about a time when something happened somewhere to somebody; not about other things to other people. It is about peculiarity and contingency, time and singularity – which are things that our daily lives tend to remove. P. Jedlowsky[1] argues that the narrative thinking – according to the philosopher Vattimo[2] too – can understand the Living nature better than logic, abstract and scientific thinking. Somebody’s voice, although individual, always expresses something that goes beyond itself.

The succession of the ordinary and the exceptional is a fundamental element of a narration that tells something we expect and alternates this with a dramatic turn of events. It is important to discriminate between the narrative piece – the story – and the storytelling speech – the narration. In the narration facts are ordered along a rather “free” temporal sequence; sometimes time is more dilated, sometimes more compressed.[3]

The chronological order of the events is often distorted by the narration; we can get back from our starting point and anticipate what is about to happen.

Time is when events happen and switch one situation to another one. Within this time, characters act, accidents happen, situations are distorted, so that everything can be narrated in multiple ways with different tones and different styles.

The way the events are sorted generates an exposition that goes beyond their mere chronologic succession; this strictly depends on the relationship between who brings about the stories – “book” – and the “bookseller” who collects such stories.

The quality of the story – just like the poetic and evocative values of the synopsis in this catalogue – is closely related to the good relationship and empathy developed between the “book” and the “bookseller”.

In the Living Library, the leitmotiv is the life of a person; and the main character is the same person who tells the story.

In the book-and-bookseller relationship, just some of the actions, feelings, incidents, accidents are meaningful; they build up a course of events delimited start to end.

Stories sometimes start from one detail and this detail develops into more details. No lives are nothingness: every single case recalls the peculiar world it belongs to. Every storyteller uses words, expressions, and narrative techniques that underlie values, beliefs, norms, symbols and myths by which the individual conveys and idea of the society he/she has historically belonged to – and by which such society is acknowledged. By collecting and giving shape to the narrative material that the “book” gives to its “bookseller”, we can start telling an anecdote, a detail, a relationship, in order to inform the readers about the context in which those details take place; doing so, “foreign books” have the opportunity to talk about their homeland by picturing memories that they have brought forward to Italy.

In the “book-reader” relationship, the body and the voice are integral part of the narration.

While storytelling, the words of the “book” go with a body language that is undisguised to the “reader”; this language is sensitive to the messages and the reactions that the recipient sends back during the narration.

If every one is someone else’s other, there is always something ours in others’ stories. Other people’s stories open us up to this world; they talk to us because the others concern us[4] and look at us. For these reasons, the stories reverberate into the “readers”’ mind; at times, this resonance turns the story into a dialogue and helps the relationship germinate. The narration comes to fruition within a relationship and contributes to giving shape to it thanks to a “reader/listener” who is never mute.

The verbal approach requires at least two people together in the same place. The story being told is never the same; it changes every time is shared, according to the peculiar moment as well as to the listener.

A story is effective as who listens to it turns it into something useful. This is a tangible benefit since whoever can acknowledge advices, proverbs, memories, and tools to rebuild again his/her own imagination. The storyteller and the listener, in fact, give something to one another during their relationship.[5]

[1] Ordinary stories. Narration in the daily life [Storie comuni. La narrazione nella vita quotidiana]; P. Jedlowsky, Ed. Mondadori Bruno 2000

[2] Technique and existence. A philophic map of 1900s [Tecnica ed esistenza. Una mappa filosofica del Novecento]; G. Vattimo, Paravia, Torino 1997

[3] The art of narrating and the art of coexistence. [L’arte di narrare e l’arte della convivenza]. Atti del Convegno, Palermo 1997

[4] Ordinary stories. Narration in the daily life [Storie comuni. La narrazione nella vita quotidiana]; P. Jedlowsky, Ed. Mondadori Bruno 2000

[5] The art of narrating and the art of coexistence. [L’arte di narrare e l’arte della convivenza]. Atti del Convegno, Palermo 1997

Bibliography

The art of narrating and the art of coexistence. [L’arte di narrare e l’arte della convivenza]. Atti del Convegno, Palermo 1997

The Narrator; Observations upon Nikolaj Leskov’s work [Il Narratore; Considerazioni sull’opera di Nikolaj Leskov]; W. Benjamin Ed. Einaudi 2011

The rites of passage [I riti di passaggio]; A. Van Gennep, Ed. Bollati Boringhieri 1981

Story plots – Peter Brooks, Einaudi 1984

You look at me, you speak to me [Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti] A. Cavarero; Ed. Feltrinelli 2001