How the Human Library made us

 8th July 2015

In late 2011, Ronni Abergel (the founder of the Human Library) asked Oz and I to set-up Human Library UK as an official branch of the Human Library Organisation. We were delighted to do so, and had been thinking along similar lines already. After a crash course in setting up a community interest company and some invaluable support from Robert Ashton, we were registered in January 2012. Now we could turn the best work we’d ever done into our business, our jobs and our lives. Or so we thought.

The next 18 months were a real challenge, but worth every minute in the long run. We spent the majority of our time trying to police the Human Library, having many long phone calls or email conversations with people who wanted the Human Library to be something it wasn’t. Sometimes it would be clear and blatent misuse of the methodology, such as using the Human Library concept to talk about things like environmental issues, tourism, or even oil prices! Other times it was a request to organise a themed event around a single but wide issue, such as mental health, refugees or LGB&T. This would be much harder for us because the intentions of the organisers were usually really good, and they were causes that we would support personally and professionally, but it just wasn’t a Human Library. To explain in detail why these were not Human Library events would take another few blog posts, but in essence it is because they would be excluding people with every right to be there. An example might be an event for Refugee Week where everyone is a refugee, which excludes someone who is ‘Transgender’, or ‘Muslim’, or ‘Bi Polar’, or ‘On Benefits’ because they are not refugees. However, they would have every right to take part in a Human Library.

So, after about 18 months we were tired, frustrated, angry and very close to giving it all up. However, our love for Human Library was so strong that we felt unable to give up, we just had to find another way. And find a way that worked for us, and for everyone else. We felt that we had to put our energies into positive things, rather than always saying no to people. So, we decided to change our company name to The Outsiders so that we could create alternative projects that we could promote to people who wanted something that we felt was an abuse of the Human Library. By changing our name and creating new projects we protected the Human Library from misuse, and stopped wasting time trying to convince people to do the Human Library correctly, when they actually wanted a themed event.

As soon as we took that decision new projects started to emerge. SoMe was created as an alternative social contact model which can be themed around any trending social topic, does not have a methodology, and can be organised with fewer volunteers. It uses the functions and features of social media to facilitate dialogue, and requires just a few sheets of paper. Refugee Camp was inspired by the Time To Change Village (another piece of work that came from us trying to protect the Human Library) and helps us raise awareness of issues affecting refugees and to celebrate the contributions that refugees have made to our history and culture. It also allows organisations that support refugees locally to engage people in a creative and informal way, and to promote the valuable work they do. MeetMarket is still in development, but is a way of helping businesses and the third sector to network and share skills, knowledge and experience that will help new start-ups and charity/school projects get off the ground. It will also help us prevent the Human Library being used for Business2Business events.

The Human Library is special to us not only because we love the concept and methodology but because it brought us together in the first place. Not only have we realised that we work well enough to go into business together (something I had never thought I would do), but we’ve also realised that we like each other enough to call each other friends. This friendship has even survived 8 East Anglian Derbies and looks set to survive a few more.

And we have the Human Library to thank for everything.

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