HUMAN LIBRARIES: THE POWER OF USING STORIES IN
I. Boboňová1, I.L. Kurtek2, A. Škodová1, Ľ. Galuščáková1, Ľ. Rybanský1
1Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra (SLOVAKIA)
2IUVENTA - Slovak Youth Institute (SLOVAKIA)
Educators focused on promoting intercultural dialogue and the protection of human rights are
frequently faced with the challenge to come up with something innovative, something that can attract
pupils and students attention. The Human library is considered to be an innovative method, as well as
a safe space for a dialogue, where different topics are discussed openly between Human books and
their “readers”. In Slovakia Human libraries have been operating in the youth sector for fourteen years,
however there has hardly been any cooperation between their organizers (NGO's) and formal
educational institutions. Therefore, this study reflects on this gap and examines Human library as a
teaching strategy for achieving cooperation between formal and non-formal educational institutions
and simultaneously engages pupils and students personally in challenging prejudice and stereotypes.
A qualitative research design was used for this study. All participants of Human libraries (primary and
secondary school teachers, university teacher trainee educators, youth workers, pupils and students)
were asked to fill out an anonymous feedback reflecting their attitude to the Human library and also to
the "read" Human books. We gathered data from seven Human libraries around Slovakia (Banská
Bystrica, Bratislava, Košice, Nitra, Prešov, Trenčín and Žilina) from more than 650 respondents.
These Human libraries brought together people who would not have normally met, engaged them in
conversations and provided them an innovative strategy useful for formal and non-formal education,
as well as for cooperation of formal and non-formal educational institutions to increase respect for
difference and otherness. The results of feedback content analysis demonstrate how Human libraries
engage pupils and students in the process of countering prejudice, increasing respect for diversity and
promoting human rights.
Keywords: Human library. Human book. Formal education. Non-formal education. Human rights.
Over the past several years, an increasing enthusiasm for innovative teaching approaches that
combine formal and non-formal education has been observed. Many researchers and university
teacher trainee educators have discussed the need for increasing application of non-formal education
at schools and universities [1-3]. Werquin  explains the current increasing interest in the non-formal
learning by the fact that this mode of learning mostly reproduces real world situations. In other words,
Erich  is saying that education cannot be limited to school, but must encompass all dimensions of
existence, contribute to the development of individual personality to help him understand his place in
society. The educators focused on promoting intercultural dialogue and protection of human rights are
frequently faced with this challenge to come up with something innovative, something that can attract
pupils and students attention and simultaneously to help them learn from each other’s experiences.
The Human library, in particular, is considered to be an innovative non-formal method, it is being
referred to as a safe space for dialogue, where different topics are discussed openly between Human
books and their “readers”.
1.1 History of the Human Library in Slovakia
The Human library was founded in Copenhagen, Denmark, by a young and idealistic youth
organisation called "Stop the Violence" in 2000, with an objective to break down barriers in
communities and give voice to those who have faced discrimination [6-7]. Ever since, the Human
library has grown intensely and has gained global popularity in countries such as Australia , Canada
, China , and the United States . In 2007, the Human library was launched also in Slovakia
for the very first time. Youth workers from IUVENTA (Slovak Youth Institute) learned about the project
and decided to organise a Human library event during the International day of Human rights. This
event turned out to be a huge success in Slovakia . Since then, IUVENTA (Slovak Youth Institute)
Proceedings of EDULEARN20 Conference
6th-7th July 2020
has hosted Human library every year and the activity has become a major attraction for youth, NGOs
and many other institutions. Over the last ten years, other NGOs have also begun to explore the
concept of Human library, and the possibilities it offers. Nowadays Human libraries are organised in
Slovakia mainly by NGOs, such as: Eduma, Milan Simecka Foundation and Amnesty International
1.2 Concept of Human Library
A Human library is an event in which “readers” gather to listen to “Human books” tell personal stories
about specific topics . It is a public event aimed at reducing stereotypes and prejudices, in the form
of an interactive, contact-based intervention. It employs the logic of a regular library yet with readers
“borrowing” Human books . Human books are people who have unique stories to tell: they have
experienced discrimination and prejudice, hardships, and significant life challenges . The “reader”
of the Human library can be anybody who is ready to talk with his or her own prejudice and stereotype.
In the Human library, Books cannot only speak, but they are able to reply to the readers' questions,
and the Books can even ask questions and learn themselves . Some human libraries involve only
one person “reading” a Human book at a given time , but usually include groups of “readers”
listening to a Human book. Human libraries represent a new way of building and sharing community
knowledge, which works to enable people to learn lived experience from their fellow community
Based on these facts, the present study aims (1) to examine Human library as a teaching strategy for
achieving cooperation between formal and non-formal educational institutions, (2) to receive and
analyse a valuable and authentic feedback from primary and secondary school teachers, university
teacher trainee educators, youth workers, pupils and students to help university educators identify the
areas of strengths and weaknesses, of the applied innovative non-formal method (Human library) in
formal education, and (3) to engage pupils and students in challenging prejudice and stereotypes.
The study described in this paper was carried out within seven Human libraries in Banská Bystrica,
Bratislava, Košice, Nitra, Prešov, Trenčín and Žilina (cities of Slovakia) during school year 2018-2019.
These Human libraries were organized in cooperation of two different institutions: The Constantine the
Philosopher University (CPU, formal educational institution) and IUVENTA - Slovak Youth Institute
(non-formal educational institution). IUVENTA - Slovak Youth Institute was chosen for cooperation due
to its long history of Human libraries organization. In accordance with each Human library
organization, there were also primary and secondary schools from chosen cities participating.
A total number of 699 participants who attended these events were given the same instructions. Each
participant was allowed to borrow maximum three Human books while being given 30 minutes tops to
speak with them in groups of up to ten people. The “Human book titles” to be borrowed were the
following: a hearing-impaired person, a person with a visual impairment, a person with Asperger's
Syndrome, a disabled, wheelchair-bound person, a girl with eating disorder, a mother of child with
Down syndrome, a homeless person, a Roma athlete, a Somalia refugee, Syrian Civil War refugees
and a person of a Jewish descent.
At the end of Human libraries events, organizers were asked to fill in an anonymous feedback
reflecting their attitude to the experience with the cooperation between formal and non-formal
educational institutions within the frame of Human libraries. In addition, Human library “readers” were
also asked to fill in an anonymous voluntary feedback, to be able to provide an in-depth insight into
participants’ thoughts and feelings after attending the Human library and “reading” Human books.
The data obtained from anonymous feedbacks from all participants (organizers, pupils and students)
were conducted a thematic analysis and obtained data are summarized by means of descriptive
3.1 The Experience with the Cooperation of Formal and Non-formal
Educational Institutions within Organizing Human Libraries
In order to better understand the process of organizing a Human library, we asked the Human library
organizers (primary and secondary school teachers, university teacher trainee educators and youth
workers) to fill in an anonymous feedback after each Human library. Questions in feedback were
focused on evaluation of the experience with the cooperation of formal and non-formal educational
institutions within organizing Human libraries, and improving the methodology for a potential re-run of
the event. The answers from anonymous feedbacks were conducted a thematic analysis and the main
findings are presented in the following Table 1 and Table 2.
Table 1. Summary of the strengths of the cooperation of formal and non-formal educational institutions
from the point of the Human libraries organizers.
Strengths of cooperation
“Friendly and open atmosphere during reading Human books as a result of
Human book and volunteers from IUVENTA presence only (no teachers),
students felt more comfortable, when speaking about new topics in
presence of an unfamiliar person.”
“IUVENTA had applied new non-formal methods and activities, pupils and
students didn't feel any connection with formal education.”
“IUVENTA also took events outside the formal classroom or other learning
environment, pupils and students didn't feel connected to the school.”
“Some topics were really “tough” they could have caused some
unexpected reaction of pupils and students, therefore presence of special
pedagogues and psychologist from university made us calm.”
“Schools could cooperate just with organizations accredited/approved by
the Slovak Ministry of Education, the cooperation of University with
IUVENTA within organization of these events, give a clear sign that these
events are for schools appropriate and acceptable.”
“IUVENTA has a wide database of Human Books, which are trained and
offer a wide range of stories.”
“IUVENTA has the proven methodology and valuable experiences with
organizing Human libraries.”
“Cooperation with university and primary and secondary schools is the
most successful approach for recruiting participants.”
“Cooperation with primary and secondary schools gave us the possibility to
work with pupils and students before and also after Human Library
Table 2. Summary of the weaknesses of the cooperation of formal and non-formal educational institutions
from the point of the Human libraries organizers.
Weaknesses of cooperation
“It took some time to learn to communicate and establish the efficient
cooperation between formal and non-formal educational organizations.”
“It was really difficult to manage such a big and diverse organization team.”
“Volunteers from IUVENTA and Human Books are normally working in
other companies, therefore communication with them was possible only
after working hours.”
3.2 The participants personal opinion of the Human libraries and Human
In addition, pupils and students were also asked to fill in an anonymous voluntary feedback. They
were asked to write about their personal opinion of these Human libraries in general. Moreover they
could leave the personal message for “read” Human books.
Throughout seven Human libraries, the organisation team received 373 feedback forms from all kind
of readers. It means, that 53% of all respondents filled in an anonymous voluntary feedback (Table 3).
Surprisingly we noticed that there is no negative statement about visited Human libraries and “read”
Human books. Considering this fact, our study show that there is, in general, a strongly positive
attitude towards the Human libraries.
Table 3. General data from Human libraries.
% of feedbacks
Human library Bratislava
Human library Nitra
Human library Trenčín
Human library Žilina
Human library Banská Bystrica
Human library Prešov
Human library Košice
In the following section, the impact of Human libraries and Human books on “readers” is described.
We noticed that the easiest and effective way to describe the impact is to present some opinions,
feelings, impression from “readers” about Human library.
From feedback forms, six major categories of statements (see Graph 1) have been determined,
ranging on the scale from general (focused on the human book story, obtaining new knowledge,
human library atmosphere) to more self-focused (inspiration for life, self-discovery in the human book
story, personal message/wish).
Graph 1. Categories of statements.
Graph 1 shows that the statement focused on the Human book story was written by 32% of the
respondents, in their feedbacks were mentioned:
0% 5% 10% 15% 20% 25% 30% 35%
Self-discovery in the Human book story
Inspiration for life
The Human library atmosphere
The Human book story
- “(Name of Human book) fascinated me with her courage in choosing to become a mother, even
though she knew that her son would be born with Down's syndrome.”
- “It struck me that during the war in Iraq, the children could not go to school and that they could
not play outside.”
- “I am surprised that (Name of Human book) has positive experiences with people in Slovakia
and does not meet with manifestations of racism and racial discrimination.”
- “I liked the whole story, but what surprised me the most was that (Name of Human book)
communicated with her boyfriend for three years only with a pen and paper.”
Additionally, 13% of the respondents thought that they learned something new from Human books:
- “I learned interesting stuff from history of The Second world war and Jewish holocaust.”
- “I learned to listen better.”
- “I learned what the blind people dream of.”
- “I learned how children with Asperger's syndrome behave and that they can be successful. I
was surprised that Lionel Messi has also Asperger's syndrome.”
The survey revealed that 13% of the respondents stated that they really liked the Human library
- “Human books were really open and I felt I was having a real discussion with friends.”
- “I liked that the stories were uncensored and we were discussing with Human book in small
group without teachers.”
- “The Human library had very personal character. It was really visible that Human books had
talked about real life experience and not about something learned from books.”
- “I liked that I could choose the Human book and story, which I would like to listen. Nobody
forced me to change my mind.”
Furthermore, 30% of all respondents stated that the Human book story is inspiration for their future
- “Her story inspired me not to look with regret at people with disabilities, but to look at them as
- “So far I haven't been grateful for what I have. I have to change my mind.”
- “To this day I have been afraid of foreigners, since the meeting with (Name of Human book), I
wish to meet more people like her.”
- “(Name of Human book) helps others despite her unfavourable destiny. I decided to become a
6% of the respondents revealed that they discovered themselves in the “read” Human book story:
- “My father has also a drinking problem, therefore I prefer to live in the school dormitory. This
story gave me the energy to go on.”
- “I also solve the same dilemma like (Name of Human book). I have Hungarian nationality and I
live in Slovakia. Sometimes I feel confused, because I don't know who I truly am and where I
- “Nobody from my classmates knows that I am fighting with eating disorders. It was hard to
overcome my fear and chose the Human book with the same problems. I am proud of myself
that I did it, she motivated me to love myself as I am.”
Finally, 6% of pupils and students decided to leave the personal message for “read” Human books:
- “You are doing the right thing. I will also spread your message, because it has the power to
change our future. You are a strong person and together we can stop a possible danger, which
knocks on the door. You are a better person than anyone else. I admire your willingness to save
the lives of those who wanted to take yours. You are a hero to me. Thank you for your story.”
- “This was probably the strongest story I've heard. When I am writing this, tears run down my
face. I am speechless. I wish you (Name of Human book) all the best in your life, because you
have experienced terrible things. Through your story I realized how happy my life is and that I
should be grateful for it.”
- “I have to make a presentation about my idol at school. I hope it won't bother you if I will make it
about you. Your smile made my day better.”
Education of pupils and students with special needs has gone through a long way in Slovakia; from
special education to integrated education and from integrated education to inclusive education.
Researchers from CPU in Nitra were studying different aspects of inclusive education and their
researches were focused on the integration of pupils with special needs to schools and school clubs
 and also to tertiary education . Dufeková et al.  were also studying competence of
university educators in context of inclusive education. Although, the idea of inclusive education is still
defeated due to lack of proper attitude and sensitivity on the part of university educators, teachers,
parents, community and also pupils and students.
Mathew & Jha  state, that to be able to deal with all the challenges of inclusive education,
intercultural dialogue and protection of human rights is necessary to sensitize people and focus on
providing education of three H - Head, Heart and Hand, especially education of the heart which is
related to feeling aspect. However formal educational institutions are rigid in terms of time, curriculum,
learning place and evaluation. Knowing the limitations of the formal system it is necessary that non-
formal mode of education provide their support.
Based on these facts we tried in this study to examine Human library as a teaching strategy for
achieving cooperation between formal and non-formal educational institutions and to sensitized
university teacher trainee educators, teachers, youth workers, pupils and students.
Our results showed that formal and also non-formal educational institutions benefited from contributing
to the Human library organisation. Making connections proved beneficial in line with the traditional
goals of the Human library. In meeting, talking to, and recruiting Human books and “readers” into
Human libraries all participated organisations were able to overcome social distances and make
functional connections between each other. Also "readers” of Human books enjoyed the feeling of
sharing experiences and knowledge that could instil a positive change in them. By the feedbacks
analysis the increased knowledge, understanding, and self-reflexivity among participants were
Based on all our findings we can conclude that the education is the foundation and catalyst for
changing the state of human rights protection in the world. However, formal educational institution
need effective materials and tools, which they can use to incorporate human rights in their curriculum.
Recognizing this, we really recommend to bring Human libraries to formal education. However, formal
educational institutions must not forget that the trained Human Books, non-formal atmosphere, and
youth workers from non-formal educational institutions are fundamental for successful implementation
of Human libraries in education. The cooperation between formal and non-formal educational
institutions in organizing Human libraries gives to university educators and teachers a possibility to
bring the concepts of human rights to education and make them a reality in the hearts, minds and
actions of those who are ready to "read".
This study was supported by the Slovak Research and Development Agency under the contract No.
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