Friday, 08 February 2013 10:59

Medicine Hat Public Library is first in Canada to continuously offer human books to patrons

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Shelley Ross, head librarian for the Medicine Hat Public Library speaks at celebration. Shelley Ross, head librarian for the Medicine Hat Public Library speaks at celebration.

In order for libraries to survive and thrive, they need innovations and not just with technology.  In fact, the Medicine Hat Public Library in co-operation with the Medicine Hat College Library and the Shortgrass Library system have introduced the Living Library Program. It’s the first such continuous program in the entire country.

An actual person from southeast Alberta, in a specific field, is used as the resource.
The program was introduced Jan. 31 at the public library with many of the human library books/sources in attendance.
“We’ve had a lot of interest in the program from the public and the staff,” explained Medicine Hat Library’s chief librarian Shelley Ross. “The staff got excited and we’ve been recruiting family and friends to be subjects. They thought it would be awesome. The staff got really into it.”
Its concept is simple. A library patron using any of the three aforementioned library systems looking for information on a topic can search the library’s Human Books catalogue and request to talk to someone on a certain subject of interest.
Besides looking online, there is a paper copy of the catalogue which has a labelled book jacket and sleeve, complete with a reference number in a collection area on the main floor across from the movies and music area in the public library.
That way patrons can browse to see what is available. Currently, there are experts on funerals, tattoos, hiking, theatre, knitting and adventure seeking, as well as a scientist who does work with animals, a survivor of rape, a critical care nurse and a reflexologist — to name a handful.
Ross explains the patron would then put a hold on the “book” and arrange a 30-minute discussion session held at the library between the patron and the “living book.”
“It’s all about helping people get answers,” explained Ross who added sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone from the local area about something specific.
Ross said they received a grant from the LEARN organization after applying for it last year.
The Human Library program actually started in Denmark as a youth movement in 1993 initiated by five students who called themselves “Stop the Violence.” They were trying to eliminate racism after a friend of theirs was brutally attacked. They thought they would do this by having people go to summer festivals to talk at booths and answer questions about different groups. Once they got enough people willing to talk, dialogue would open up and thus some questions and prejudices would be eliminated.
The idea started to spread globally and in November 2006, Australia became the first country to have a permanent Human Library. This is where the Medicine Hat connection took place.
Medicine Hat College Library’s Valarie Westers became familiar with the program in Australia and pushed the college administration to hold such a Human Library Day at the college.
Described by co-workers as the inspiration of pushing for the program to be brought to the college even for one day, Westers is not only pleased the Human Library Program is a continuous part of the local library system, but the first such program in Canada.
“We learn the best things through conversations sometimes,” explained Westers who works with the college’s information services’ department and is an inter-library technician.
“Any way you can share information, it’s always a good thing.
“(This program) gets people who aren’t always in libraries engaged into libraries on a different level ... we’re always looking for ways to engage the public.”
The college’s one-day living library program was a hit with students as many took advantage of learning about subjects from Canada and Medicine Hat.
Keith Walker, director of Library Services at the Medicine Hat College Library, remembers a student from Ireland who met with an author and was inspired.
Walker said the Living Library day they had the college was a success, but admits he was a little skeptical at first that this program could be sustained long term.
“However, I was really pleased with the number who signed up (as human  books),” explained Walker.
Walker is also pleased the college could partner with the Medicine Hat Library and Shortgrass Public Library System. It’s another way the libraries can all work together.
“It’s a partnership between the college and the public library system,” explained Walker who noted they already share a librarian. “We’re really complementing each other’s resources and sharing.
“At the college, we’re part of the market and the community.”
Tracy Weinrauch, the Redcliff Library Manager, which is part of the Shortgrass system is a firm believer in the program — so much so that she’s a human library book herself. She’s a reference as a parent of twins after being asked by Westers who just happens to be on the Redcliff Library Board.
“I was honoured to be asked; I love to talk (about her twin children),” said Weinrauch. “I would expect many of the questions will be from new parents of twins who don’t know what to expect or who are expecting twins. This type of book is real life.”
Being a parent of a boy and girl set of twins, Weinrauch said she will not profess to be an expert on everything involving twins, but is willing to share her experiences as a parent.
“I don’t expect it to be overwhelming,” added Weinrauch who said the 30-minute meetings are reasonable.
The Human Library will continue to grow as more word gets out and more people are asked to take part. Library administrators are excited about the possibilities
“We’re not done yet; we want more (living) books,” explained Ross who is obviously excited about the program. “I’d like some things on the agricultural aspects of our area — on tillage practices, certified organic farming.
“We don’t have a number of how many living books we want. It’ll depend on how it takes off. We’ll allocate the appropriate resources. Plus, I want it to have more edge. Can we fight racism?  What are the ways Medicine Hat judges people by its cover? Volunteers are going to have to be brave (and) need to be mature.”
Anyone wanting more information can phone the Medicine Hat public library at 403-502-8525 or visit the website at
For those wanting to go through the Shortgrass Library System which effects surrounding communities within the counties of Newell, Forty Mile and Cypress and the Prairie Rose School Division, phone 403-529-0550 or online at:
See what one of the human books has to say about this program on Page 7.

Read 21624 times Last modified on Friday, 08 February 2013 11:08
Ryan Dahlman

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