Special Collections: Who would you check out from a human library?

(courtesy of Nance Klehm)


A homosexual, a Jew, a male nanny, a communist, an anthropologist, a mathematician, a parking attendant, and a pot head. I’m not listing my friends–I don’t personally know a male nanny or a parking attendant. These are people that can be checked out of the Human Library, a small youth organization turned international activist network with locations in the United States from Connecticut to California. The idea is simple: speak with someone with whom you wouldn’t otherwise speak. Some branches have selections that highlight local tensions; a popular check-out in the Istanbul Human Library is an Armenian, and in London, a Muslim. Participants in these face-to-face encounters work out their prejudices by speaking to people who would otherwise never cross paths.

The idea strikes me because I work at the circulation desk at the Regenstein Library on the University of Chicago campus. As I watch people bustle in the turnstiles and out the security gates, I often ask myself: who would I check out from a Human Library if a branch were opened here? Most of the people I see at work are students or faculty members. All of them are affiliated with the University. I know this, because if you’re not affiliated with the University, you’re not allowed into the library. Many of the people that I would check out are among those I am instructed to turn away–people that aren’t allowed into a campus library, except maybe to clean it. There are also many people who are affiliated with the University, who clean and prepare the grounds every morning before the students walk on them, who staff the dining halls and service the facilities, who are not allowed into the libraries of the institution that employs them. Would some of these same people check me out? Me, a student who walks through the same University grounds and lives in the same area? I think they would, and that’s a paradox: we need each other, but we hardly know anything about each other.

Calling this an example of “the University versus the community” oversimplifies things. Any self-aware student at the University of Chicago understands his or her tenuous relationship with the “outside,” with the world south of 61st, north of 50th, and west of Cottage Grove–but the idea that the University and the community are forces unified in their opposition to one another obscures the complexity of the situation. Really, I don’t even know my fellow students very well. There are nearly twenty thousand of us, undergraduate and graduate students combined, and I speak to only a handful outside of the library. While on the job, scanning barcodes, fetching books from behind the desk, or making change for twenties, I find myself wondering who the strangers that stand before me really are. And when I stand in front of them while they work, in coffee shops or in campus gyms, I wonder if they think of me as a stranger, too.

My administration would have its students believe that they form a community of scholars, engaged together in a quest for knowledge and bound to the task of bettering the world. At the moment, the undergraduate senior gift committee is frantically manufacturing small celebratory events for the graduating class, encouraging it to donate to the University so that this mission of world empowerment might be kept alive–as if the senior class was a tight-knit cohort of close friends. When I check things out from the library, some of my co-workers, students that sit only feet away from me behind the fake black marble of the circulation desk while we work a shift, give me the same plastic formalities that management encourages us to use while on the clock. I can’t figure out how we are supposed to change the world when we can’t even remember one another.

The “community” that I, the student, am supposed to understand, is likewise divided, composed of many different people with conflicting interests and visions. Kenwood, Woodlawn, and Washington Park are not interchangeable parts of a whole–the “outside” of the University–but distinct places with their own peculiar tensions. On occasion their interests and issues collide with those of the University, and the outcome is usually violent; I mostly hear about these neighborhoods in crime reports.

When the Human Library originated in Copenhagen, it was a youth organization aimed at violence prevention. The founders were inspired by the near death of a close friend, who was stabbed. It took a violent collision between two strangers to motivate dialogue. The Human Library tries to make people known to one another so that knives aren’t drawn.

The University could benefit from something like the Human Library, but the harder I think about what a branch in the Regenstein might look like, the more I realize that it could never exist. The Regenstein is a private institution; its spaces are exclusive. It’s a storehouse of knowledge that scholars use so they might change the world, but the world has no access to it. Only a small group of strangers, bumping into one another while waiting in line to check things out, are allowed to pass through the entrance turnstiles. Maybe it’s because I don’t know the students around me that I can keep my head down and finish my work, get an education, and be released to tackle the problems of the world.

Yet sometimes the people I am trained to turn away–some of whom I would check out if I could– walk right up to me. A groundskeeper, a local high school student, someone south of 61st, north of 50th, west of Cottage Grove. In the library, I often relieve the front security guard while he or she takes a lunch break. The last time I did, I had to turn away a little girl who wandered in and said to me “I live nearby, and I’m just curious about this place. I think looking around inside would be very interesting. Can I come in?”