Living Libraries: Checking Out Stereotypes

In this morning’s Globe and Mail, an article about an interesting approach to overcoming social prejudices currently at Guelph University, amongst other places. The initiative is called Living Library – where the “books” are people from marginalized minority groups, and “readers” sign up for 30-minute sessions to talk with these people and learn about their experiences. Participants are encouraged to discuss their prejudices and stereotypes openly, so than they can be overcome.

In Guelph, the book catalogue touched on many taboo topics, with titles such as Don’t Call Me a Homo, HIV Positive and Transsexual Guy.

Perhaps the most brave to be found at the liberal campus: Pro-Life.

For Julia Chapman, editor of the student newspaper and contact for the Guelph event, the Living Library was a natural fit. “There is so much diversity on campus, we felt it important to provide a forum for constructive conversations on contentious issues.

While not all differences can be resolved by a simple conversation (the “Pro-Life” and “Feminist Lesbian” books are unlikely to see eye-to-eye), it is a fact that much of what divides us is simply the gulf of the unknown. Once you have a face to go with a stereotype, it tends to promote tolerance. Numerous studies have shown strong links between, for instance, familiarity with homosexual individuals and support for gay rights (source).

It seems like this would be a very valuable experience; a chance to discuss openly the prejudices that all of us have – I think even those of us who consider ourselves tolerant and open-minded would, if we are honest, concede that we harbour at least some untested prejudices. An initiative like these Living Libraries would, if nothing else, allow us to distinguish those differences between us which are real and salient, from those which are but the product of ignorance.

(Douglas College in New Westminster, BC has a permanent version of the Living Library, although theirs seems to be geared more towards experts in a field or hobby, rather than social minorities)

Related Topics


Nicholas is a senior undergraduate majoring in Cognitive Systems (Computational Intelligence stream). He enjoys a wide spectrum of intellectual pursuits from programming to philosophizing. As well as writing for the Terry project, he maintains a private blog, and a personal home page. His long-term goals include earning his Ph.D, and crushing all life beneath the iron-clad heel of his merciless robotic cohort.