Don’t judge a book by its cover

By Jane Garcia

Lismore residents have been encouraged to challenge stereotypes and engage in conversation with diverse members of the community at the launch of Australia’s first Living Library in November last year.

The ‘books’ in the Living Library are actually people representing groups in the community who may experience some kind of negative stereotyping or prejudice, or are in some ways marginalised. Community members can ‘borrow’ these living books for a half-hour conversation and ask them as many questions as they want to.

At the launch, Lismore City Council in NSW had 32 living books for borrowing, including a Buddhist, Muslim, people with disabilities, an Aboriginal elder and young person, older people, a Sudanese refugee, a police officer and a man living with HIV.

One-hundred-and-seventy people turned up on the day, and no book was left on the shelf for too long, with a total of about 80 borrowings.

“The idea of the library is to bring people together who wouldn’t ordinarily meet in the community,” said Lismore’s community development officer, Shauna McIntyre.
"It was the most extraordinary experience because we were on the ground floor area of the library and at one point I put my head up and there was such a buzz of conversation happening.
“We had some naughty readers at the launch who read a book for one-and-a-half hours because they got so involved in it.”

Ms McIntyre said people took risks on the day, stepped out of their comfort zone and really benefited from having a half- hour’s conversation with someone they would not normally ordinarily meet. For example, her 86-year-old mother-in-law attended the event and the deeply Christian woman borrowed the gay man.

A post-event survey found 98 per cent of readers said they had learnt something by borrowing a book, with one reader candidly writing that “[I] learned that not all Aboriginal people get drunk and violent” and another saying “many of my assumptions were wrong”.

“There’s been this great ripple effect, for example I know from my mother-in-law that there’s a number of people she has had conversations with about her experience. It’s not just about the conversation that happens between two people but then she goes to the group she’s involved in and shares her experiences, and that encourages other people to come along and break down barriers,” Ms McIntyre said.

Although the council planned to run the Living Library as a one-off event, due to popular demand it will now become an ongoing event on every first Friday of the month.

The Local Government Women’s Association (NSW) is holding its annual conference in Lismore in May and the organisers have approached the council to see if it could hold a living library at the conference.

Ms McIntyre said the living library was a powerful strategy for promoting community harmony, and very inexpensive to run, with the launch event costing less than $5000.

“We can definitely say this works,” she said.
”People concerned about the broader background of divisions in our society and communities, well this is a really successful yet simple initiative that promotes social cohesion. It brings together people who wouldn’t normally meet and through the simple act of conversation they get to know one another and you can’t maintain the same prejudices you may have held once you get to know someone.”

Meanwhile, Bayside City Council in Victoria will run Victoria’s first Living Library to tie in with the ‘Living in Harmony’ theme of its Library Week in May.

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