Intrigued passers-by and those who’d made plans to attend weeks ago listened Thursday afternoon as strangers told their stories inside Evans Library on the Texas A&M campus as part of the “Human Library” event.
The sessions, which lasted approximately 30 minutes at a time, varied in nature. Some “readers” listened quietly, while others, like Francesca Marini, asked multiple questions, showcasing a more active listening style.
At the check-in station, participants browsed brief descriptions and titles of “books,” or people who were preparing to share their stories. A&M Library system scholar Chad Pearson then accompanied “readers” to a table with the “book,” or person sharing their story, and the dialogue began.
Patrick Zinn, director of marketing for the A&M library system, said the topics vary widely and include stories about gender identity and sexuality, theology, research and disabilities.
“These conversations matter because we work and live within a large university where we don’t always have a chance to connect with each other,” Zinn said. “This event allows to have conversations, to get to know people as they really are and as they see themselves. People get to present their identities in their own way with their own voices.”
Marini, a librarian at Cushing Memorial Library, said she knew little about acid attacks on women in India and elsewhere. That was before she sat across from Gisele Cardoso de Lemos, an A&M doctoral student who traveled to India, learned Hindi and got to know the survivors of the attacks, who she said are women and children targeted by abusive men.
“They invited me to dance with them, listen to music with them, they make jokes and play music and laugh,” Cardoso de Lemos said of the women, who moved her to tears.
“They changed me, not just as a scholar, but as a human being,” added Cardoso de Lemos, who is in her sixth year of study at A&M.
Marini and Cardoso de Lemos’s conversation continued for several minutes following the official end of the session, which aligned with what organizers said draws people to the event.
“I didn’t realize how widespread, current and common it is,” Marini said of the attacks. There are 250 to 300 acid attacks reported in India every year, despite laws restricting the sale of acid or other deadly chemicals, according to Stop Acid Attacks, a nonprofit group.
Leslie Winter, who works at the Cushing Library and Archives, said that curiosity is the initial draw for some for the event.
“I think what keeps people coming back to this event is when you start at a point of vulnerability — sharing something that is really pivotal and powerful in your life. That’s a closeness that doesn’t often happen elsewhere,” Winter said.
Taylor Tyson, who works as an Interpersonal Violence Prevention Specialist at A&M, said she generally focuses on helping people in the A&M community connect with resources. On Thursday, she shared her own experience as a survivor of sexual assault.
Tyson said some listeners connect with her story through experiences of their own or a family member or close friend. For others, it makes assault less of an abstract conversation.
“This specifically was an interesting opportunity to me as a way to share the same message that I do in my daily work, but with a different lens of how I got to this point and why I do this work. It isn’t something I usually share with folks on campus. This is my backstory,” Tyson said.
“We are thrilled with the way the Human Library humanizes — literally — the voices of diversity on campus and in our community,” David Carlson, dean of A&M University Libraries, said in a statement. Carlson called the event “a safe space, and is an extension of the diversity of voices sitting on our shelves and in our electronic resources.”
Six officials from Northwestern State University traveled from Natchitoches, Louisiana, to observe the event, which was the A&M library system’s third annual. Debbie Huntington, head of collection development and cataloging at Northwestern State’s library, said they will run a program in the fall at which attendees can listen to the stories of veterans, their spouses and children.
The Human Library event was sponsored by the University Libraries Diversity Advancement Committee.