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At Toronto's Human Library You Check Out People, Not Books

Inspired by "living libraries" around the world, Toronto's Human Library allows you to check out a person for 30 minutes and "read" their life story.

Surely it’s the first time the comment “I can read you like a book” has received the response “OK, just return me in half an hour.” The so-called Human Library, a one-day program held in November at five branches of the Toronto Public Library, allowed the reading public the chance to book time with some uniquely fleshed out plots: that is, the stories of actual people. For 30 minutes each, visitors could “check out” and glean stories from volunteers, who were selected for their compelling backgrounds. “We heard about the idea in 2009 when other libraries from around the world began having ‘Living Libraries,’” says Anne Marie Aikins of the TPL. The Library saw it as tool for engaging community and sharing information—and diverse Toronto seemed, says Aikins, “perfectly suited” for this sort of program.

The contents of their canon proved that point. "Books" on the shelf ranged from a Buddhist monk to a quadriplegic journalist to a gang member-turned-doctor to a formerly homeless businessman (apparently, the curators’ tastes skewed to realist epics over comedies of manners). And, even as the concept of human texts playfully undermines some sacred library traditions—card catalogue searches; shushing—the program does seem to hit on the discovery experience, even the literary populism, at the core of a great library. Might there be a long-term place for people in the stacks? “We are seriously considering making it a permanent part of our collection,” says Aikins.

Photos courtesy of the Toronto Public Library

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