Don’t Judge a Book by it’s Cover!

A library in which you can borrow a speaking book. Not only a dream of every fairy tale fan, but also a project to reduce stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination while supporting dialogue and understanding.

The wish which a lot of us had already: a book that speaks to us through it’s pages. We saw it in Harry Potter where the newspapers were more vivid then our imagination and the pictures in it moved and told the latest news. We saw it in Inkheart in which the book when read out loudly, by people with a special gift, became reality. You might connect those and many more associations with the term living library. And I can tell you that all of your ideas fit, at least to some degree.

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Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

The term Living Library is a metaphor for a method firstly used in Denmark in the year 2000 by a youth group called “Stop The Violence”, where it was performed during a music festival. In Budapest the organisation Azert7 adopted this method while still keeping the goals the same. “Living Library is a method created to promote respect, dialogue and challenge stereotypes and discrimination between different social groups” says Magdalena Sitarek, one of the main person responsible for the project.

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Magdalena Sitarek (Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi)

And all that works without what a normal library would need tons of: books. The Living Library is a metaphor in which the books are replaced by humans who have fascinating stories to tell. Instead of borrowing a book, you get the chance to have an honest conversation about various topics while you witness someone’s story. The topics are as diverse as you can imagine. But all of them have something in common: they are related to social groups who have to face stereotypes and discrimination.

You might ask yourself: “This sounds great, but how does it work?” To answer this question we will visit the last Living Library I attended in the beginning of April.

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Kazinczy Living Library (Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi)

The Living Library follows the concept of a real library. But a big difference you will immediately notice is the location. The Kazinczy Living Library is held in Kazinczy utca 14 or better known as the most popular ruin pub in Budapest: Szimpla Kert. When you enter Szimpla you will arrive at the registration table. Similar to a real library you have to give general information like name, age, nationality etc. to register. With filling out the form you also ensure, that you will not harm the book and return the “book” in the same condition as you received it. You should respect the feelings of the person you’re facing and basically treat him the way you would want someone to treat you.

After registration the reader needs a little bit of help, to find the book he or she wants to read. This help is provided at the information table. You can find a short summary of all books put together in a folder and sorted by various topics. The topics included are migration, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), homelessness, religion and many more. The summaries are written by the books themselves and translated into English in case they “only” speak Hungarian.

Furthermore, the infotable also provides visitors with information about NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) who are directly involved and in some way represented in the event. Many of the “books” are active citizens of our society and also fight against discrimination and stereotypes in NGOs.

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Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

We take a folder and sit down. While reading through the summaries we encounter a lot of interesting stories. We read about an Indian guy called Ramir who is traveling the world with his family, works in a multinational company, and had to break through the stubborn boundaries of his culture to marry the love of his life.

We keep reading and find a story about Anna “the Jewish girl” who is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors and lives the Jewish culture in a different way you would expect.

For the next summary we have to double check the text before we believe what we read. A woman called Csurika who shoveled coal in a factory as a 14-year-old child, was homeless for a long time and nowadays distributes the homeless newspaper.

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Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

Then we read about Arkadiusz born in Poland: he moved to Budapest in 2001 where he met his boyfriend, and since 2009 they have been quasi married and have been raising a kid as “replacing fathers”.

We have the agony of decision now and have to choose one “book” we want to read first. Therefore, we have to move on to the subscription table where we can rent a book.

And which one is the first to be read? You can find out from our next article.

Felix Müller
EVS volunteer at the Charity Service of the Order of Malta