Alia Gant, a diversity resident librarian with the Penn State Libraries, had never shared her story in public. Being a lifelong, plus-size woman in a society obsessed with thinness is tough, to say the least, and the experiences—many of them hurtful—Gant has endured over the years are not easy to recount.
But Gant was inspired to come forward and share her story Wednesday as a “human book” at Pattee and Paterno Library. She was one of a number of people who took part in Penn State’s first Human Library project, a global initiative that originated in Copenhagen, Denmark, and uses dialogue and human interaction to counter stereotypes and preconceived notions that people have about others.
Typically, readers will “check out” a Human Library “book” for a one-on-one “read.” But Megan Gilpin, outreach coordinator for Library Learning Services, who spearheaded the effort at Penn State, felt that small, 45-minute storytelling sessions with no more than 10 people attending at a time, would be more conducive to encouraging the free flow of words, thoughts, and experiences between storytellers and their audiences.
That format appealed to Gant and encouraged her to participate in the project. “I really liked the setting—it was intimate in a way that allowed people to trust each other with their experiences in a safe space,” she said.
Allison Subasic ’09g, former director of Penn State’s LGBTQA Resource Center, felt the same way. “I’m a shy person,” said Subasic, who spoke candidly to a small group about her difficult childhood, her family, and being dyslexic. “This was good for me.”
Even experienced storytellers like Brian Davis (above), an undergrad majoring in African-American studies, criminology, and sociology who has spoken before large gatherings and given TED talks on his former life as a gang member in Philadelphia, favor the Human Book format. “I feel like I’m able to breathe and tell my story more intimately,” Davis said. “We all have certain prejudices, no matter what we think, but by sharing stories and listening to stories, I believe those prejudices do dissipate.”
Gilpin first heard about the Human Library project at a librarian’s conference last May and thought it would be perfect for Penn State. The event, part of the All In campaign launched last October to promote and commit to diversity and inclusion, featured 14 storytellers sharing often difficult-to-tell stories on race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation, among others.
“We wanted people to hear someone else’s stories and recognize that others have had barriers,” Gilpin said. “We wanted stories to be told in settings where people could ask questions, where everyone is reciprocal and everyone can learn something new about someone else.”
The Human Library concept has spread to more than 70 countries since its inception in 2000. Gilpin hopes it will be repeated at Penn State on a regular basis.
Savita Iyer, senior editor