Sunday, October 19, 2008

Living Library

I participated in the most wonderful program at the Santa Monica Public Library (SMPL) yesterday. It was called the “Living Library Project” and is part of an international movement to promote knowledge through conversation. The first Living Library occurred in Denmark several years ago as a way to combat violence and prejudice. SMPL’s event was the first of its kind in the U.S.

So what happens at the Living Library? Instead of learning about a topic through printed materials or websites, patrons are encouraged to “check-out” human experts (i.e., Living Books) with whom they can converse in the library for 30 minutes. Library cards are not required, but patrons do have to sign an agreement promising, among other things, not to damage the Living Book in any physical or emotional way. The experts on hand in Santa Monica included two Buddhists, a cancer survivor, a celebrity publicist, a disability activist, a woman who advocates on behalf of overweight people, a feminist, a formerly homeless person, a woman who works for an agency that helps homeless people, a nudist, an immigrant from Oaxaca, a raw foodist, and two teenagers.

The place was abuzz when my husband and I arrived. Library patrons were jockeying for a chance to speak with an available Book, while volunteers, wearing gray “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” t-shirts, directed participants to conference rooms and tables. I signed up to meet with Rachel, the homeless advocate, at 2:30PM. As I waited my turn, I reviewed a list of suggested questions to ask my Living Book:

Why did you want to tell your story?
What makes you stereotypical/not stereotypical?
How have you been accepted/not accepted in society?
What is the most rewarding experience you have had?
What is your biggest obstacle?
Do you have a defining moment? What was it?

I chose instead to ask whether or not I should give money to street people (the answer: no — it is much better to give food coupons or actual food) and why Santa Monica has such a large homeless population. I also asked what services are available for local homeless folks.

What I learned: (1) many of the people living on the streets of Santa Monica actually grew-up in the area before becoming, for whatever reason, homeless; (2) according to the only two census counts conducted locally (in 2005 and 2007), the number of homeless people is dropping, possibly because of the good work being done by social service agencies countywide; and (3) although no one likes living on the street, it can be difficult to motivate people to change their situation even if that change is for the better — loss of dignity is one of the most powerful barriers keeping homeless people from improving their lives.

The most surprising moment came, however, when I asked Rachel how she had become an advocate for the homeless.

“Do you have a degree in sociology?” I wondered aloud.

She smiled and said that she had started off in banking many years ago, but then, after suffering a bout of severe depression, had become homeless herself. Supported and cared for by several agencies, she decided to dedicate her life to helping other homeless people once she got back on her feet. We then spent the rest of the all-too-short session talking about how rewarding her work is. At the end of 30 minutes, I shook Rachel’s hand and thanked her for sharing her story with me.

What started off as just a curiosity — so what happens at the Living Library, anyway? — ended up being a profound experience where I not only learned more about homelessness, but also met someone who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to now help others better themselves.

I hope more libraries will consider tapping into the rich depths of their local communities to share the unique knowledge of their own Living Books.


Bruz said...

Ack, what a magnificent post! Thanks for not sticking with the script--and yet, recording what what is on the question script. This is fabulous reporting. Great blog, all around! Ha: we, too, got some of those customized M&Ms recently. Thanks, Cindy, for these posts and pleeez keep up the wonderful writing.

Ginny said...

Wow. What a great concept.