Real Life Library promotes empathy and understanding with live “books”

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Walking into Goodman South Madison Library on Saturday afternoon, visitors are greeted by two friendly staff members.

“Are you here for the Real Life Library,” a staffer asks?

After signing in, a volunteer directs visitors to the back of the library, where another staffer awaits.

Photo courtesy of We Help One Another

“What book would you like to checkout,” he asks? After an unsure pause, the volunteer hands-out a checkout card.

“Here’s a great one,” he said.

Instead of being ushered to an aisle and handed a hardcover, with the checkout card in hand, residents are directed to a room and seated in front of a person.

That person is the  book.

On Saturday, Madison-based organization We Help One Another (WOAH!) hosted Real Life Library, an event where volunteer community members acted as live “books” to tell personal stories that attendees “read.”

Inspired by the international Human Library Project, Real Life Library provides opportunities for the community to listen to and learn from stories of people’s experiences. The objective is to develop an understanding of different lives and experiences through storytelling.

“In this climate right now, we’re seeing more division and…less connection,” said Real Life Library founder Jennifer Smith. “We’re trying to help foster a sense of connection and empathy in a stronger community.”

Listening to stories is what helps to develop such empathy and understanding, says co-founder Garrett Lee, who echos the principle in which Real Life Library is grounded: everyone has a story to tell.

Saturday’s event was the fifth occurrence of the interactive library since it was founded in February 2017. Centered around a theme of criminal justice, ‘books’ told stories about incarceration, restorative justice, school-to-prison pipeline, and how the justice system impacts family and friends.

Photo courtesy of We Help One Another

Real Life Library not only provides opportunities for readers to listen and learn, but is an outlet for expression. One woman, who was incarcerated as a teen, told her story to share it with the world and note historical changes that have occurred because of her involvement in the justice system.

“I was silenced for a long time. I’m not silenced anymore,” she said.

After a round of listening to books, participants gathered for a “book review” where they discussed how the books made them feel and what they learned from them.

As visitors talked, even though they were unacquainted with each other, a connection emerged between participants. Reaching through the words of real life books, the stories connected shared interests in community for those in the room.

“What gifts these stories are,” Lee said.

At the end of the event, a reading of each book was recorded and stored in a digital archive for future residents to read.

The next Real Life Library will take place on November 11 at Madison Central Library for a Veterans Day edition in partnership with Madison Public Library and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

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