Kara Blizzard, Dr. Yvonne Becker and Nancy Goebel
A human library is an event in which “readers” listen to “human books” tell personal stories about specific topics related to prejudice and discrimination. At the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, the research team designed an assignment and collected associated data on the integration of the Augustana human library into an undergraduate Introduction to Women’s Studies course. The assignment challenged students to consider both oral narratives and scholarly journal articles as information sources. Results showed that the human library assignment contributed to increased empathy, critical thinking, and engagement with course topics.
In this article, the Augustana human library research team (consisting of the three authors) will describe the augustana human library and how the team has used the event to take a new approach to teaching information literacy. The article will begin with an overview of the Augustana human library and how it is organized, followed by a description of how the event is connected to information literacy, with a focus on our Women’s Studies curriculum.
Augustana is a liberal arts and sciences campus of the University of Alberta in Camrose, Alberta, Canada. It serves about 1000 undergraduate students. Nancy Goebel started the Augustana human library in 2009, and Kara Blizzard and Yvonne Becker began to collaborate with her in 2013. The event is organized by Nancy Goebel, Kara Blizzard, and select Augustana Library staff twice each academic year (fall and winter). October 2018 marks the offering of the 20th Augustana human library. Information about the Augustana human library is available at www.library.ualberta.ca/augustana/infolit/humanlibrary.
A human library is an event in which “readers” gather to listen to “human books” tell personal stories about specific topics. The readers and human books then have conversations about those stories. Human books are people who have unique stories to tell: they have experienced discrimination and prejudice, hardships, and significant life challenges. At Augustana, both readers and human books may be students, staff, faculty, or community members.
Many human libraries involve only one person “reading” a human book at a given time (Watkins, 2014), but, at Augustana, human book sessions usually include groups of readers listening to a human book. The organizers promote a group atmosphere for several reasons:
At the Augustana human library, human books are scheduled for specific session times. The human book and reader(s) go to a private room for the session, which lasts for about an hour. In some cases, only one or two readers “check out” a human book, and in other cases, there can be a larger group (typically a maximum of about twenty readers). In all cases, the goal is to create a safe and intimate space in which participants can have informal conversations with each other. The human book speaks for most of the time, and then readers have the opportunity to ask questions and start a conversation about the topic.
Human book topics usually relate to two primary themes at Augustana:
The best library acquisitions require careful selection, and human books are no different. It is very important to seek human books with credible narratives, who speak, collectively, to a diverse range of relevant and engaging topics. In most cases, the event organizers approach specific individuals who have been identified or recommended, to ask if they will share their stories as human books. Occasionally, an individual contacts the organizers after hearing about the human library and asks if they can be a human book. To facilitate suggestions for new human books, the event organizers have developed an online form through which anyone can suggest a human book. When suggestions are made, event organizers contact the potential human book for a conversation.
In the weeks and months before the human library event, each new human book composes a compelling title and brief description of their topic. This practice helps them to focus their topic and also serves to pique the interest of readers. To help human books prepare for the event, the event organizers give them a few key pieces of information to consider:
Although the read is not a presentation, the event organizers suggest that human books bring point-form notes about what they want to say, in case they forget something important in the moment. Developing those notes also helps human books to organize their thoughts before the event.
There are many logistics to consider when planning a human library. Key areas include:
A human library can be offered for no cost. At the Augustana human library, the event organizers incur minimal costs through advertising, human book thank-you gifts, swag, and refreshments. A human library can be held in any location where there is some degree of privacy for conversations, so there is typically no need to rent any special equipment or space.
Each Augustana human library event is scheduled for one or two consecutive evenings. In the weeks before the event, human books sign up for specific session time(s). Typically, human books are scheduled for more than one session so that readers have multiple opportunities to read them. The event organizers aim to post the schedule on our website at least one week prior to the event.
The Augustana human library is advertised via graphics displayed on library and campus LCD screens, signs around campus, the campus newsletter, slides shown during library instruction, and ads in local newspapers. However, word of mouth seems to generate the most interest; the human library is a difficult event to describe in a single graphic!
Readers register when they arrive at the event to check out a human book. They complete a brief form and show a piece of identification. The registration process helps to ensure a safe space for all participants.
Any library collection needs maintenance and development to keep it current and relevant. The Augustana human library has over one hundred human books in its catalogue, which is continually growing and changing. The event organizers frequently seek out new human books who can address specific topics that are relevant to the Women’s Studies curriculum.
One focus of contemporary information literacy instruction is the many types and formats of information available in print and electronically. The human library introduces students to the concept of oral narrative as an information source. It also teaches students about primary sources (human books) and secondary sources (such as journal articles), and about how to synthesize ideas from both types of sources. While developing the research project, the research team speculated that the narrative nature of the human library would add a personal element to students’ learning, through which students would experience empathy and introspection and encounter unfamiliar perspectives as part of their research process.
The research team has used two approaches to help students connect the Augustana human library with their courses and research:
Both approaches require students to learn how to credit human books in their assignments. The organizers have developed a document that shows students how to cite a human book in each citation style that is used at Augustana (Augustana Campus Library, 2014). The process of citing human books helps students to understand the role of oral narrative in scholarly research. It makes them consider contexts and constructions of authority. For example, in undergraduate research, journal articles are generally seen as more authoritative than an individual’s lived experiences. The human library creates an opportunity for students to question this construction. Citing human books also allows students to explore the process of information creation, through examination and use of different information formats. There are many possibilities for connecting this student experience and research opportunity with the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (2016).
For the past few years, the Augustana Library has partnered with an Introduction to Women’s Studies course, adding a unique human library component to a course assignment. The assignment has three parts:
After reading the human book, students write a reflection on that experience. Students are provided with the following reflection prompts:
The research team gathers a variety of data for analysis as part of the research project. The two types of data referred to in this article are:
The pre- and post-questionnaires include a variety of demographic questions, which can be taken into consideration during data analysis. Demographic questions include age, gender, the discipline of study, and whether the participant is a student, staff member, faculty member or community member. Because the augustana human library encourages people of any gender to participate, the questionnaire lists a range of genders as response options instead of providing only female and male response options. The questionnaires also offer readers and human books the opportunity to reflect on their experience, and to explain whether and how the human library impacted their understanding of a topic. The research team uses the Women’s Studies assignment to gather reflective comments on the process of research via human narrative, as well as more traditional library-based research.
The research team has found the research results to be very encouraging. Provided here are a few of the findings.
In the post-read questionnaire, readers in the Women’s Studies course have provided responses such as:
The augustana human library has had positive effects on participants, the library, the campus, and the broader community. A few of the successes that have contributed to the sustainability and profile of the augustana human library are:
The augustana human library has been covered by local, regional, and national media. Media coverage has brought positive attention to the library and university. This attention affirms the need for and appreciation of this kind of event.
While the augustana human library is organized primarily for the campus’s undergraduate students, all persons associated with the university and the local community are invited and encouraged to attend. The event creates excellent opportunities for intergenerational and intercultural conversations about potentially sensitive and controversial topics. The Augustana human library engages the community and provides a great “town and gown” bridge.
While it was assumed (and quickly affirmed at the first event in 2009) that the Augustana human library would be a positive learning experience for readers, human books have also provided positive feedback regarding their experience of the event. Many human books have thanked the organizers for the opportunity to share their story in a safe space in which they can experience personal healing and growth. Human books often return to subsequent human library events to tell their stories again and, in many cases, to be readers.
One great feature of a human library is that it incurs minimal financial costs and can even be offered at no cost. All expenditures are optional; for example, organizers can decide whether to offer thank you gifts to the human books, provide refreshments to participants, or arrange for paid advertising. To make logistics and planning simple and inexpensive, organizers can invite a very small “collection” of human books.
Curricular collaborations between librarians and teaching faculty are another key aspect of the program’s success. The human library creates an opportunity for librarians to engage with faculty on new and creative information literacy initiatives. It also provides students with a unique learning experience and makes plagiarism virtually impossible.
Each time students have a new reason to visit the library and engage with staff or participate in programming, they are likely to become more comfortable with using the library and its resources to their advantage. They are more likely to ask questions when they need assistance, to study in the library, and to have a more positive experience with the library in general.
In a world that struggles daily with intolerance and the resulting violence and fear, the Augustana human library celebrates its role in building compassion and empathy in participants. Event organizers and the research team value the human library’s potential to contribute to the acceptance of diversity.
The Augustana human library successfully engages students, staff, faculty, and the Camrose community in a learning experience that benefits both readers and human books. The human library provides an opportunity for unique information literacy assignments that increase students’ engagement with relevant topics and demonstrate the importance of consulting a variety of source types during the research process. The Augustana human library grows and changes each time it is offered, in response to curricular goals, feedback from participants, and efforts to maintain and increase engagement. For future Augustana human library events, organizers will consider additional ways of embedding the event into Women’s Studies assignments.
Association of College and Research Libraries. (2016, January 11). Framework for information literacy for higher education. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework
Augustana Campus Library. (2018). How to cite a human book. Retrieved from http://guides.library.ualberta.ca/augustana/human-library/citing
Little, N., Nemütlu, G., Magic, J., & Molnár, B. Don’t judge a book by its cover!: The living library organiser’s guide 2011. Retrieved from https://book.coe.int/eur/en/youth-other-publications/7359-pdf-don-t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-the-living-library-organiser-s-guide-2011.html
Watkins, C. (2014). Human libraries: Collections with a voice of their own. ILA Reporter, 32(4), 8. Retrieved from https://www.ila.org/publications/ila-reporter
Kara Blizzard is a Public Service Librarian at the Augustana Campus Library of the University of Alberta (Canada). She possesses an MA in English from Queen’s University and an MLIS from Western University. She teaches information literacy and provides reference services in more than 20 undergraduate disciplines taught on the liberal arts and sciences campus. Kara is a co-organizer of the augustana human library, and she works to engage more and more of the campus and civic community at each event. Kara coordinates the chat service for all campuses of the University of Alberta.
Dr. Yvonne Becker recently retired from the position of Associate Professor (Physical Education / Women’s Studies) at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta in Camrose, AB, Canada. She has a passion for the intersection of sport and feminist issues, and she collaborated with the Augustana Librarians on the integration of the augustana human library into Augustana’s liberal arts curriculum. Yvonne taught courses in Women and Sport and Introduction to Women’s Studies in addition to many other topics related to Kinesiology and Sport Studies.
Nancy Goebel is the Head Librarian of the Augustana Campus Library of the University of Alberta (Canada). Nancy’s strong interest in information literacy has led her to spearhead: fifteen annual “Augustana Information Literacy in Academic Libraries Workshops” featuring high-profile international speakers; the creation of information literacy awards for students and faculty; the production of the DVD “It Changed the Way I Do Research Period: Augustana Talks Information Literacy”; credit-bearing discipline-specific information literacy courses; the augustana human library; and the open source information literacy assessment software WASSAIL.