Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Living Library: Using Our Institutions as New Models for Civic Dialogue

Are you looking for an innovative no-tech way to engage visitors in civic dialogue? A platform for museum staff to serve as facilitators of safe spaces for difficult conversations? A way to bring people on opposite sides of an issue to a fruitful, positive meeting place? Then bow your head and say a silent "tak" (that's "thank you" in Danish) to the creators of the Living Library. What is the Living Library? According to their website:
The Living Library works exactly like a normal library – readers come and borrow a 'book' for a limited period of time. After reading it they return the Book to the library and – if they want – they can borrow another Book. There is only one difference: the Books in the Living Library are human beings, and the Books and readers enter into a personal dialogue.
The Living Library was conceived in Denmark in 2000 as a way to engage youth in dialogue about ending violence by encouraging people to meet their prejudices and fears in a safe, fun, facilitated environment. A Living Library requires three kinds of people:
  • Books, who openly and honestly represent certain stereotyped groups (i.e. Feminists, Disabled People, Muslims, Police, Goths, Gays)
  • Readers, who check out the Books for 45-minute to 2-hour discussions
  • Librarians, who facilitate the whole process
Since 2000, Living Libraries have been produced primarily in Europe at festivals and libraries with support from the Council of Europe youth sector. They are often one-offs for events but are increasingly included in the regular slate of programming at major libraries and cultural facilities (but at my count, only one museum). While a four-hour library may only draw 100 Readers, it engages those 100 people (along with 20 or more Books) in substantive dialogue, and the spectator/lurker effect on those who just browse the catalog or take a quick glance around can be much greater. They are careful to state that the Living Library is not a publicity stunt for an organization nor an advertisement for the Books involved. Instead, “The Living Library is a tool to foster peaceful cohabitation and bring people closer together in mutual and careful respect for the human dignity of the individual. This is true for the readers, the Books and the organisers alike.”

The Living Library is inspirational. It's also well-documented so you can do it yourself. The Council of Europe youth sector has made the Living Library tool available via this 36-page pdf booklet about organizing a Living Library. The booklet features personal stories from Books, Librarians, and Readers alongside practical explanation of what it takes to coordinate a Living Library. On the Living Library website, you can also find sample catalogues, Book application forms, and marketing materials for download. It’s an enjoyable, practical, inspiring read.

It's also interesting for people thinking about the essential value of libraries and museums. One of the surprising things about the Living Library methodology is how closely it mimics traditional library experiences. The reader experience is mediated by a gate-keeping librarian and a catalogue. The Living Library spaces are often decorated to simulate libraries (except in cases where they are staged in real libraries). The design encourages browsing of the catalogue before selection of a Book, and the expectation is that you will spend a significant amount of time with any Book selected.

The creators of this project recognized an essential civic value of libraries as civil, safe places and capitalized on that value to make a risky proposition to users. By framing the whole experience in the context of a library, which has widely understood implicit rules and expectations, they turned something that could have simply been about provocation and bravado into a true learning opportunity.

This really challenged my preconceived stereotypes about libraries, museums, and the flexibility of their use and application of core concepts. I often think of the museum/library setting and standards of behavior as a hindrance, not a help, to participation. When I think about museums becoming experience facilitators rather than experience providers, I typically imagine transforming the framework of museums, not the objects. That is, I think about ways that our current collections could be reframed in more comfortable, open spaces as the triangulation points between visitors, providing conversation pieces and bonding opportunities. But the Living Library takes the opposite approach. Instead of transforming how books are used in a new setting, they transform the books and keep the setting.

Why on earth would someone set charged conversation in a place like a library, stereotyped as a space that abhors talking of any kind? Because that tension makes for a unique kind of conversation. The Living Library breathes new value into the traditional frame. The frame is what keeps things civil so the Librarians, Books, and Readers can make it civic.

Could this be applied to museums? I think so. How could visitors' stereotypes about museum behavior and the kinds of activities available in museums be exploited to provide a radically different experience? In the same way the Living Library is organized around the frame of librarians, catalogues, books, and the action of checking things out, a theoretical Living Museum could be organized around exhibits, artifacts, docents, and the action of looking at things or moving through spaces. Imagine a museum in which Artifacts of a war are veterans, family members, and former enemy combatants. Or an exhibit on immigration in which you could check out Legal and Alien Artifacts for discussion based on labels identifying their provenance and status. A museum tour in which a docent "tours" you to a variety of volunteer artists who talk about how they create their work.

I see the Living Library both as a useful tool and as an inspiration for other ways to reconceptualize traditional institutional frames. We don't have to throw out the word museum, the guards, the artifact labels. We just need to find new ways, again and again, to make them come alive.

Speaking of which, I'll be spending the rest of this week rediscovering gravity while rock climbing. So if I don't respond to your comments right away, it's because I'm between a rock and a... well, you know.

Would you use the Living Library? How else could you imagine reframing the traditional aspects of museum or library visitation towards new ends?

4 comments, add yours!:

Jennifer Rae Atkins said...

Wow, what a neat idea! I love it. And the metaphor works, too. I would be interested in a virtual version, although it would be much more difficult to achieve their goal of challenging stereotypes without the face-to-face aspect of the project. I would definitely use the Living Library if I had access to it. I can easily think of a few stereotypes and prejudices I indulge but wish I didn't.

I'm especially attracted to the one-on-one nature of the program, the fact that it's not forced, and the simplicity and ease of it.

Thinking of museum analogs, well, there could be living exhibits of people…or you could check out someone who represented an object or a time or a place…checking out scientists could be fun, or artists

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me a of a talk I attended by John Falk who takled about a museum exhibit on humans. One part of the exhibit was on behavoir and was a round play area in the middle of the room. As the children played the parents supervising around the outside could read about human behaviour and how it develops through play. Thier own kids became the "collection"

Ari said...

@Jennifer Rae Atkins,

This idea reminded me immediately of reddit/r/iama

It's a community where people post what they are, whether it's a human characteristic (black single mother, mormon, orthodox Jew, tourettes) a career (5 star restaurant chef, zamboni driver, film director), or situational (I got in a car crash drunk driving, I tried LCD, I was on David Letterman).

I think you'd really enjoy it.

Kathryn Lyons said...

We did it! Thank you for planting this seed. The Canadian War Museum partnered with the Ottawa Public Library and hosted the Human Library. We brought in 19 "books" to share their unique perspectives on war, conflict, service. The room was electric with intense, thoughtful, engagement. Exactly the right platform for exactly the kind of dialogue we hope to be a home for. Thank you!