A humanized book

What if, instead of borrowing a book from a library in your city or university, you could borrow a person and hear her story? Welcome to the "Living Library", where books are real persons and pages are face-to-face conversations.

von Asma Abidi

Amro Khalaf Alla from Sudan,Wessal Youssef from Palestine and Harutyun Voskanyan from Armenia at the book fair at Frankfurt a.Main. Photo: Kuhnle/Ifa

The Concept

In an open space called “Weltempfang” (world reception) on one of the multiple floors of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the World’s biggest book fair , Amro Khalaf Alla from Sudan,Wessal Youssef from Palestine and Harutyun Voskanyan from Armenia were panelists at an event hosted by “The German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations” (“Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e. V.” (ifa)).The three came from different German cities to share their experience as „books“ in the “Living Library” event which started in Stuttgart and now came to the Book Fair in Frankfurt.

The “Living Library” is a project based on oral communication. The concept was born in Denmark years ago and spread all over Europe and worldwide. It works like an ordinary library – the reader has interest in a particular book, borrows it for a certain time and after reading it, brings it back again. However the stories in the “Living Library” are alive. They are told by people, who come from different cultures, have different lifestyle and some of them are confronted with prejudices, stereotyping and social exclusion. The project gives an opportunity to meet these people and learn more about their stories.

The three participants Amr, Wessal, and Harutyun have something in common. They all came to Germany with an exchange program called “CrossCulture program”, promoting dialogue between Germany and countries of the so-called Muslim World, and recently the „Eastern Partnership“ countries.

Photo: Kuhnle / Ifa

The program gives the opportunity to young professionals from these countries to realize an internship in a German institution. In their countries, they are activists, journalists, researchers or aid workers. As the ifa celebrates their 100th anniversary, a “cultural caravan” across Germany has been organized between April and October: 7 Cities – 7 Stories: The CrossCulture Tour 2017 has brought examples of intercultural dialogue to cities across Germany. The program Alumni worked hard to break down barriers in transcultural exchange with a series of interactive events. In this framework, German fellow Katharina Merz (Bonn) initiated the “Living Library” events to bring people into dialogue and interaction.


Challenging prejudices and stereotypes

Katharina Merz, has a background in special needs education, and works currently for an organization specialized in voluntary exchange but also in different cultural projects.

„I read a lot about the concept of the ‘Living Library’ and did a lot of research about it. I wrote to all organizers of the ‘Living Library’ I could find and asked them about the concept and the various experiences“.

The “Living Library” is not just an intercultural tool. Katharina sees it simply as a medium that brings people into dialogue, which is now crucial in Germany as there is a lot of ‘stereotyping’ and many stereotypes are being widely accepted as facts. This experience gives you a space to stop seeing people as one homogenous group but as individuals with own stories, history, lifestyles and itineraries”. She adds.

Amro Khalaf Alla comes from Sudan. He was „borrowed“  after the panel by a group of attendees and had a long conversation in one of the corners of the book fair. He afterwards described the experience as an attitude-changing experiment. „It is funny how sometimes people think that Africa, this huge continent with so many countries and cultures is one country. They often say ‘do you come from Africa?’ Some also think that all Africans who come to Germany are refugees.”

Amro adds: “The „Living Library“ experience changed my point of view on different things and opened my eyes on the common values we all share as humans. We are all concerned with Climate Change or wars. These conversations give people the opportunity to find common ground and break stereotypes which are wrong in most of the cases.”

Photo: Kuhle/Ifa

Roads to dialogue

Dr. Eva Sodeik-Zecha, Head of “CrossCulture Programme” was excited to see the event taking an interactive dimension. „It’s interesting to see how  these innovative concepts could bring people together to exchange their views and perspectives and fight against stereotypes. Getting into a face to face discussion guarantees an authentic narrative.“ she adds.

The “CrossCulture Program” has impacted the lives of many participants coming from countries where the situation is sometimes unstable or precarious. The program boosted active dynamics between the interns themselves and helped them integrate in the professional working environment in Germany. It was also an opportunity for the Germans working in the hosting organizations to get fresh ideas.

Read more about the „Living Library“ here.