Williams College Human Library seeks 'books' to share experiences with 'readers'

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> The Williams College Human Library is looking for a few good books.

This coming February will see the fifth annual "Human Library" event, during which people act as books and tell the tale of one or more aspects of their lives. Interested "readers" can come and check out a "book" for up to a half-hour and share a personal discussion about that topic. Members of the public interested in sharing their stories can register to volunteer now through Feb. 1.

Past human books had titles such as "Adult Child of Manic Alcoholic," "Growing Up in Jim Crow South," "My Experience With Homelessness," "Polyamorous Homoromantic Asexual Man," and "Syrian Arab."

The Human Library is an event organized by the Gaudino Fund, which tries to perpetuate late professor Robert Gaudino's practice of confronting biases with immersive engagement, or as some have called it, uncomfortable learning.

"The Human Library gives people the opportunity to talk with someone they might not necessarily otherwise come into contact with, thus hopefully breaking down stereotypes and preconceptions," said Lois Banta, professor of biology and Gaudino Scholar at the college. "And in doing so, it allows you to see your own perspectives in a new light."

Last year, roughly 200 readers got to select from 39 "books." The event is free and open to the public.

Banta said the readers have to agree to treat their "books" with respect, and to keep their conversation confidential so the human book can feel confident enough to speak freely.

The "books" gather on the upper floors of Paresky Center on the college campus. The card catalogue is posted on the first floor, where readers will select their books. Volunteer librarians escort the reader to the book, and a 30-minute conversation ensues.

Each book offers three questions to help start the conversation. More than one reader can "read" a book at a time.

Charles Dew, a history professor at Williams, served as a book last year with the title, "Growing Up in Jim Crow South."

Having grown up in central Florida in the 1940s and '50s, Dew said he experienced Jim Crow society, and was raised to think white people were superior. Once he was grown and experienced other locales and circumstances, his world view changed, he said, but it is a unique perspective to have seen those days from the inside.

"People learned something from having that discussion," Dew said. "And it is helpful to people to learn about racism and understand that it is a learned behavior passed from one generation to the next."

Philip McKnight, an adjunct professor of environmental law at both Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, offered himself as a book with the title, "Rodeo Cowboy/Ocean Yacht Racer."

"It's a really wonderful afternoon," he said. "I enjoy teaching, and this is an opportunity to interact with students and with townspeople."

McKnight likes to bring props to illustrate his topics, like a saddle and a sextant.

"For most folks, I may be the only rodeo cowboy and ocean yacht racer they'll ever encounter," he said.

The Human Library will be open on Friday, Feb. 26, and Saturday, Feb. 27, from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Paresky Student Center.

To volunteer as a book, go to "Become a Book" before Feb. 1 on the Human Library Project website at http://sites.williams.edu/humanlibrary.

For more information, call or email Lois Banta at 413-597-4330 or lbanta@williams.edu.


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