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culture

It’s Alive! The Human Library Breathes Life Into an Age-Old Pastime

Remember when talking to people was still a thing? On November 5, the TPL wants you to check out a book with a mind of its own.

Chris Upfold (right), the TTC's new Chief Customer Service Officer, answers questions from CityNews' Francis D'Souza at a preview of the Human Library.

Reading can be an intimate experience. Hopefully you learn something, at least—that’s what books are for, after all. But when was the last time a book talked back to you? Beginning this Saturday, you’ll be able to start placing holds from the Toronto Public Library’s newest collection: the Human Library.

Now in its second year, the TPL’s Human Library has rounded up nearly 40 Torontonians—some familiar faces, some unknowns with life experiences to share—who are each available to be “checked out” for 30-minute intervals on November 5. The human books will be spread out between four branches: the Toronto Reference Library, North York Central, Cedarbrae in the east end, and Richview in the west end.

Human book Chris Upfold, the very brave new TTC Chief Customer Service Officer, took part in a preview event at the Toronto Reference Library earlier this week. Upfold, sporting an optimistic pair of bright pink socks, answered questions about taking on his job and dealing with mass disgruntledness. “I was under no illusion when I accepted the job — the risk was always going to be that they were hiring me so I could fail,” he said. “That they could say, ‘We’re going to bring in this guy from London, we don’t actually care very much about customer service, but we can pin it on him.’ And to their credit, that’s not the case.”

Upfold came off as refreshingly open about criticism of the TTC. “Is it faster? Sometimes. Is it cheaper? Sometimes. What we should be for Toronto is the easiest way to get around, the way with the least number of hassles,” he continued. “We really do need to be ‘the better way,’ and we’re not right now.” As the new face of the TTC, Upfold has a lot to answer for. By the end of the Human Library event, we’re sure his spine will be cracked by more than a few Torontonians.

Toronto Star reporter Catherine Porter, another human book, discusses her experience in Haiti after the earthquake.

Other recognizable human books available for the event include author and perambulator Shawn Micallef (Stroll); Toronto Police social media officer Scott Mills (a.k.a. @GraffitiBMXCop); and local journalists such as Catherine Porter (Toronto Star), Jonathan Goldsbie (The Grid and the National Post), and Andrea Houston (Xtra). Houston, who has recently been championing the issue of Gay-Straight Alliances in Catholic high schools, will not shy away from touchy subjects. “I’m happy to discuss any issue through a queer lens, to queer up the Human Library,” she said. “People can ask me anything! I’m an open book.”

But the event isn’t just for satisfying your curiosity about local celebrities; importantly, it’s also about facilitating conversations with other Torontonians whose life experiences are worth sharing: cancer survivors, mental-health experts, entrepreneurs, and a surrogate mother for a gay couple.

The Human Library’s youngest participant is 17-year-old Haille Bailey-Harris, who once struggled with being bullied as the only black student in his small-town school. “I just think the best way to help someone through something is to show that other people have been through it, so that people understand they’re not the only one,” he said.

According to Anne Marie Aikins, the TPL’s community relations manager, the Human Library is a project that started in the early 1990s in Copenhagen, in reaction to a violent gay-bashing incident. “They were started to help people have a broader understanding of differences, to deal with prejudices and stereotypes,” Aikins said. “It’s an alternative way to learn and gain knowledge. Reading a traditional book is one way, downloading an ebook is a modern way, and this hearkens back to the old days when we told stories one-on-one to each other.”

Aikins admits that if someone is staunchly homophobic, chances are slim that they’ll check out a queer-focused human book and have their attitude changed right away. However, for all of the subjects covered in the Human Library collection, she hopes that the attention from the public and the media will help people to hear positive messages about difference.

Although drop-ins are welcome, all library card–holders can place a hold on a human book beginning Saturday, October 22 by visiting the participating branch or giving them a call.

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