#10 – Learning by Conversing: The “Human Library” movement (2000)

When was the last time you had a decent conversation with someone?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me of his wariness on the little amount of books he read. He told me that he always felt intimidated by intellectuals that had read an extensive amount of books, whereas he can barely find the time and encouragement to finish one. I told him what I’ve learnt in USIPP—that knowledge is everywhere and it cannot be bounded by the pages of a book. A decent conversation with someone can be far superior than a stack of books, because everyone contains a story and knowledge so extensive that each can surpass JK Rowling’s best selling volumes. One can learn from anything, anywhere, including pages of books. I, however, find joy in finding knowledge by reading humans and engaging in quality conversations. 

A good conversation is an intensive learning process for both parties. In this sense, no pretense is needed. Finding knowledge in conversations doesn’t mean that both parties have to sit in a formal setting and discuss high-context issues such as political affairs and the like. It only means that both parties have to be genuinely open enough in learning about and sharing their knowlege with another. I can start a random conversation with a florist on his day-to-day flower grooming and I would still call it a good conversation—if the previous condition was met. You can start a good conversation with anyone, anywhere, and strangely enough, most of mine were started in a taxi.

A good conversation can last for a long period of time. I remember some of the conversations I had better than the books I’ve read. My favorite one was when I roomed with Sarah in USIPP, and one morning after waking up, we just rambled around on God and Philip Pullman’s Dust matter as written here. It was highly spontaneous, random, yet that is what I would call as a good conversation.

But how often do you engage in such conversations?

Not very often, I presume. Though on text it seems relatively simple, finding the right people and their zine, that intersected domain of interest and concerns, is very hard. Finding their zine is the key foundation of having a decent conversation, because you will be tapping into their comfortable conversing zone—the things that make them tick. For some people it can be seen as plain as day—their job, their nationality, their racial background, even their religion. Some of the most decent conversations I had, as I said before, started in a taxi, on the everyday life of taxi drivers.

A big number of people, however, just don’t have the same understanding of sharing knowledge through conversations, even when faced with their comfortable fields. For some, a conversation is just what it is—a compulsory greeting to the people they met. Take it from me, during this last month I haven’t even had any decent conversation with anyone. Finding a person that want to have any real conversation on anything, even, is hard. Even more so in grappling around on the issues that might be of their interest. It takes two to tango, and it also takes two to have a decent conversation.


That is why I found the Human Library concept to be extremely intriguing. The global movement connects people that have commitments in forming good conversations—that are genuinely open to listen to and share their knowledge with others. In this concept, people are seen as books with specialities, similar to the zine I mentioned earlier. You can go and borrow a book to converse with, depending on your chosen titles. This concept will enable people to have good conversations with others on selected topics of interests without having to grapple around beforehand.

Find out more about the Human Library here.

The concept has been adopted by many institutions worldwide with the a particular focus in promoting multicultural understanding. The global movement adopted Ronni Abergel’s original concept, that is to publish people as books. It means that the general contents of the conversations are curated and the people are edited beforehand.



The movement tried to break the boundaries of social settings, which I found to be very noteworthy. When seeing someone wearing a niqab or burqa, for example, I was always intrigued in learning more about their story—to find a deeper answer to their whys. The person, of course, might not be comfortable in talking about such things with strangers because there’s this assumption that they might be judged for that. As the people in Human Library are committed to non-judging, these minority groups can be more open in sharing their stories.

As Abergel, the founder of Human Library, said, the movement does not provide the general facts, but rather first-hand truths. It may differ from one person to another, but the interesting thing is that we get to learn in a deeper level while being engaged in a positive manner. For me this fact alone will allow us to think beyond structured ideas on several issues, similar to a personal-account book such as Elie Wiesel’s. The only differences are that living books are not as well-documented nor as consistent as written ones. But it also has its perks, which are embodied in two-way engaging conversations.

Finding the right people to be labeled as books is hard work, and therefore the hosts of this event should be acclaimed for their works. Imagine trying to find a homeless man who would be interested in sharing his story while you told him he has to be edited first before being published.

In a highly diversified community such as Indonesia, movements similar to this might be interesting to be applied. It can only be applied effectively, however, in an academic community such as universities which embodies many moderate thinkers. In such setting, the audiences would have enough understanding of the intellectual and societal purposes of the movement. I wouldn’t recommend this to be applied in grassroot settings, though.

Care to initiate one? 😉


Lintang Cahyaningsih


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