Learning from a Library of Living Books

Storytellers and readers gain new perspectives through interactions about life experiences.

Two people sitting having a discussion in a Syracuse University library.

Imagine what you could learn from someone willing to give 20 minutes of their time to share their story.

In a celebration of individuality and fun, Syracuse University hosted its sixth annual Living Library in the E.S. Bird Library this spring. One of several Living Library events being planned throughout the region with support from the Central NY Library Resources Council (CLRC), this event is based on Syracuse University Libraries' former Human Library events. Volunteers from across the community—including faculty, staff and students— acted as “living books,” representing a range of cultural backgrounds, talents and life experiences to share their stories on various topics with “readers” who engaged in one-on-one conversations.

Syracuse University Living Library pins

Instead of reading a book the way you would in a traditional library, “reading” in the Living Library consisted of listening and asking questions. The goal was for members of the campus and community to create a dialogue, challenge assumptions, celebrate differences and learn all about someone they might not otherwise have had a chance to meet.

The living books volunteered their time for various reasons: To interact with others. To speak to the fun of living. To answer questions anyone might be afraid to ask. To show you can make a difference.

Creating a Community of Support

“Do not underestimate the power of your own story and experience,” says Rhonda Chester, the United Methodist ecumenical chaplain at Hendricks Chapel. She reflected on her journey of becoming an American citizen and integrating into American life and culture. Chester grew up in South America and other parts of the Caribbean and England in her early childhood and teen years. She has had various encounters during her cross-cultural journey that offered opportunities to learn about herself and others.

“Over the years, I have learned how to acknowledge cultural differences and similarities, and thereby make decisions to either assimilate or disassociate with a particular cultural norm, a bias or ignorance,” she says. “For instance, while living in a particular Middle American context, I was silenced in the community because a few members in that community claimed to be the ‘real Americans’ because they were born here. These persons didn’t think that my experiences and contribution to the community and conversations were valid. Try as I did to cultivate different experiences in said community, my efforts were lost there.”

One reader wanted to know how this can be done on a wider or more regular basis since it is so powerful.

-Rhonda Chester

She was motivated to contribute to the Living Library because of its creative format as well as the readers’ genuine curiosity. With many of the volunteers, it was not only the reader who learned, but the living book who became aware of the uniqueness of their experiences. Chester received positive feedback about her story, which she has considered publishing. “I felt truly encouraged when one of my readers exclaimed, ‘I would buy your book and read your story because it is helpful and inspiring,’” she says. “I felt validated, which boosted my confidence as a writer. I have started the process of writing and now feel emboldened to continue.”

Chester is a return volunteer, having participated at last year’s event as well. The readers she spoke to were looking forward to Living Library events in the future. “One reader wanted to know how this can be done on a wider or more regular basis since it is so powerful,” she says.

Joining People from Different Walks of Life

“We all are living books whose stories need to be told so that others can be encouraged and inspired,” says Jamia Williams, a volunteer who works as a librarian and diversity fellow at SUNY Upstate Medical University Health Sciences Library.

We should take the time to look at everyone as individuals and to put our biases aside.

-Jamia Williams

Growing up, Williams lived in an urban area, but attended a suburban school thanks to the Urban-Suburban Program in Rochester, New York. She wanted to share her struggles with classism, racism and bullying and what she learned. “I was hoping to teach that resiliency is not taught, but only happens when a person does not give up,” she says. From some of the teachers and suburban students, she encountered preconceptions of how she “should” look or act coming from an urban area. She hoped to dispel those ideas by talking through her experiences. “We should take the time to look at everyone as individuals and to put our biases aside,” she says.

Two people collaborating in a Syracuse University library

Williams appreciated the genuine interactions with others at the Living Library and commented on the “beautiful vibe” in the atmosphere as people related across cultures. “I wanted to share my story and to connect with people,” she says. “I took away a greater appreciation of the human experience.”

Twanna Hodge, an academic health sciences librarian at SUNY Upstate Medical University Health Sciences Library, shared her journey from growing up on St. Thomas—a Caribbean island that’s 32 square miles— to embracing life as a first-generation college student pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a librarian.

As a first-time living book volunteer, Hodge was inspired to tell her story in a space that encouraged openness and curiosity. “You are able to engage with people in a different context, one that promotes inquisitiveness and deep conversations,” she says.

The most common question Hodge received poked fun at Syracuse’s weather. “I was asked several times why I moved to Syracuse,” she says. “Because folks initially cannot understand why someone who was born and raised in a place where most people go on vacation would move to Upstate New York.”

But Hodge also connected with a reader who had a similar background, and she cites it as the most thought-provoking of her conversations. “The questions had me thinking and reframing my experiences, but also enabled me to know I am not alone,” she says.

Syracuse University supports faculty, staff and student collaboration in creative activities that address societal needs, often acting as a launching pad for endeavors off campus and in the community. Both Hodge and Williams hope to bring a similar Living Library event to the SUNY Upstate Medical University Health Sciences Library in the future. “Learning about each other’s humanity is how we break down prejudices, reduce biases and grow to love each other,” Hodge says. “It exposes our similarities and helps us appreciate our differences.”

Demonstrating the Potential for Human Triumph

As a scientist nearing retirement from Syracuse University, Donald Siegel, Meredith Professor Emeritus and president-elect of the Geological Society of America, decided to polish his guitar-playing skills. Having dabbled with the instrument when he was younger, he took learning seriously and became a proficient solo jazz guitarist, playing on a custom model he had made by a luthier. Siegel also endeavored to spend more time writing fiction, another area of interest. For his experience as a living book, he wanted to show the benefit of indulging in hobbies. “It keeps my mind active dealing with subjects outside of my professional discipline,” he says.

Syracuse University Professor Emeritus Donald Siegel playing the guitar

Siegel combined his two passions into a novel called Gaspar’s Guitar, which he hopes to have published. “I began thinking of the adult magical-reality genre from my love of the novels Like Water for Chocolate and Perfume,” he says. “I met a novelist from New York City who suggested I try writing some fiction and I have had some interaction with SU’s brilliant George Saunders who originally trained as a geologist, too. One day I started thinking about it, and when I got my custom-made guitar to be a protagonist, away I went.”

As part of his discussion with readers at the Living Library, Siegel read a short passage from the book and played a song. Participants were supportive of his success. “Some were surprised I achieved my new goals and had the discipline to do it,” he says. “I think they wondered if they could, too.”

Putting a ‘Face’ on the Topic

Often, the living book finds new value from sharing their story. Jim O'Connor, producer of Sound Beat, a daily radio program produced by the Syracuse University Libraries, was diagnosed with epilepsy at a young age and spoke about how it has affected him. “I talked about my life with the condition, as well as our understanding of the condition societally, and how that has changed over the years,” he says. What struck him the most was a question from a reader. “I was asked how my condition affected my siblings, and I had never stopped to think about it,” he says. “I actually asked them afterwards.”

I think in an age of faceless communication there is absolute value to stepping away from our screens and seeking information face-to-face.

-Jim O'Connor

The Living Library format is an opportunity for the community to be illuminated on various topics without having to read—an endeavor many find challenging due to time or circumstance—and a chance to truly connect with someone new. “I think in an age of faceless communication there is absolute value to stepping away from our screens and seeking information face-to-face,” he says. “This event is an immediate and honest transfer of knowledge.”

Syracuse University student Emma Rothman sitting and conversing

Emma Rothman ’21, a food studies major in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, discussed the faces of organ, tissue and cornea donation with readers at the Living Library. “I was hoping to explain the lifesaving connections between individual strangers and how those connections can save more than one life,” she says. “It was the connection from a stranger that saved my life because their family chose to donate their loved one’s organ.” Rothman received a heart transplant in 2011.

As a living book, Rothman’s unique viewpoint gives her the ability to educate and bring attention to a cause she’s passionate about at the same time. “I believe interaction is the foundation for growth,” she says. “Even though we are supposed to be the ones talking or teaching people about our ‘book,’ every time I have a conversation about organ, tissue and cornea donation, I learn something—whether it is about myself or how I can tell my story better, or even information about the transplant community.”

For the duration of the Living Library, individuals from all over took time to listen to each other and ultimately take away something of significance. Rothman encountered a unique opportunity at the event. “A classmate came and randomly picked a book that happened to be mine,” she says, “and we had a great conversation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Shaina M. Hill

This story was first published on May 22, 2019 and last updated on .

This event is offered in partnership with the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University, the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS), the Disability Cultural Center, Hendricks Chapel, the LGBT Resource Center, the Library and Information Science Student Association (LISSA) at the School of Information Studies, the Office of Learning Communities, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs (OVMA) and the Slutzker Center for International Services.

If you’re interested in participating in the next Living Library, please contact Abby Kasowitz-Scheer (askasowi@syr.edu) or Tarida Anantachai (tanantac@syr.edu).

All photos courtesy of Tarida Anantachai.


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