“Everyone wanted to go.”
It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Jason Wagner ’98, a volunteer fire chief at the Shortsville Fire Department who also worked with the University IT Center, had just heard reports on the radio which claimed a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Like many others on campus, however, he did not realize the true extent of the damage until he joined a large crowd of people gathered at the Multimedia Center, saw the amount of fire at the scene, and watched the first tower fall.
“A lot of people I know probably just died,” he remembered thinking. But Wagner was ready. He wanted to go. He wanted to be at the scene to help who he could. Within a matter of days, after driving to the site in a convoy of 12 ambulances, he was.
“It was a complete disaster,” he said, explaining that it was simply beyond comprehension.
You might call Wagner an open book, and in this case, you would not be that far off.
Inspired by a suggestion from Dean of the River Campus Libraries Mary Ann Mavrinac, who was part of a similar endeavor at the University of Toronto, Senior Library Assistant Mari Tsuchiya, Library Assistant Katie Papas, and Librarian LeRoy LaFleur co-organized UR’s first ever Human Library event, which was held on Tuesday, Jan. 29 in the Welles-Brown Room.
Attendees could “check out” one “book” at a time at a “circulation desk” by choosing from a collection 18 members of the University community and spend up to 30 minutes speaking with them one-on-one, or in small groups, about their own personal story.
“The purpose of the event was to expose people to different perspectives and ideas,” LaFleur said. “To create an educational experience and to provide an opportunity for people to take risks in asking questions they might not normally feel comfortable asking.”
The books included a variegated selection of people: a minister of the United Church of Christ, a psychiatric intensive case manager, even an African refugee who came to the United States at 10 years old with no formal education, among many others.
“You could flip a coin — throw a dart down there, hit somebody, and it’ll be a terrific person,” Papas said, adding that “everyone is really excellent, and that is not just a generic answer.”
Each human book had a title, ranging from straightforward—“African American Community Activist” — to more thought-provoking — “Forgiving is not Forgetting.”
The concept of the Human Library was initiated by a Danish youth organization called Stop the Violence, which was formed after a mutual friend of the five founders was stabbed in 1993. Thankfully, the friend survived and the group began to work to curb violence in Denmark, including organizing the first Human Library in an effort to reduce prejudice through face-to-face interaction. It made its premiere in 2000 at the Roskilde Festival, Northern Europe’s biggest summer festival.
The University’s event, for which planning began in November, was originally intended to revolve around the same concept; yet according to Papas, it ended up being more about the ability to have a conversation with someone whom attendees would most likely not have gotten a chance to speak with otherwise.
“Ideally, people will come to this with an open mind, an open spirit, and will learn something about the human existence — something about one other person’s story,” she said. “Whatever hardships you may have had, or however blessed you may have been… there is a tremendous shared experience.”
The hunt for books was initially a targeted one in which Papas, Tsuchiya, and LaFleur reached out to people they thought would make a good book, but once the project got more publicity, many people reached out to them as well. All of the books were interviewed by a combination of Papas, Tsuchiya, and LaFleur, but everyone who wanted to be a part of the event was able to.
Tsuchiya explained that it was important to her and her co-organizers to create an environment in which the readers felt comfortable talking to the books, while still making it as open as possible. She noted that there are no rules for what you can talk about, but that if the books choose not to talk about a particular topic, that is alright.
Chelsea Marsh ’12, a laboratory technician in the brain and cognitive sciences department, had a story that focused on her involvement in Taekwondo — she was titled, appropriately, “Martial Artist.”
Marsh, who is a first-degree black belt, had been interested in martial arts for quite a while but always wanted to learn for what she calls the “wrong reasons.” On top of having an uncle who she says was always kind of mean and who she perhaps wouldn’t have minded slightly roughing up, she explained how she had always wanted to be a superhero so she could beat up the bad guys. Most importantly, however, she noted that she wasn’t always ready mentally.
“I always wanted to learn a martial art, but I never had the patience,” she said.
Marsh had a rough start with martial arts when she injured herself soon after she began, but now that she has moved past her rough beginning, she has found that Taekwondo teaches many important skills, such as patience, confidence, and coordination.
It’s clear that the sport means a lot to her in the way she explains it so animatedly, jumping quite literally out of her seat.
It is this kind of passion that gave the Human Library a little something extra — something that could never be gleaned in a more traditional library setting.
“This takes it to another level because the voice isn’t just in your head — the voice is in front of you,” Papas said, noting that for her, the event is “all about learning about other people — and learning from them.”
LaFleur had a similar outlook on the concept.
“Human books offer spontaneity and immediacy,” he said. “They can change course, alter the story, or speak directly to the inquiry of the reader in a way that print books cannot.”
Tsuchiya also points out that a Human Library lets readers essentially customize their books, perhaps learning “something more about what you’re interested in.”
Papas and Tsuchiya noted that there is already potential for a second Human Library in the future, perhaps in April as part of the University’s annual Diversity Conference or as part of this year’s Fringe Festival. They are considering opening it to the Rochester community too and even giving the event increased publicity. Papas explained that they will also reexamine the “nuts and bolts” of the event, such as whether or not the circulation desk was effective and if it should be structured more formally.
Ultimately, it’s all about the story, a human story.
“Potentially, everybody is a book,” Papas said. “Scratch the surface, and everyone’s got a great story to tell.”
Goldin is a member of the class of 2013.