Library Student Journal: Alive with Knowledge: Engaging Communities through Living Libraries (2010)

Alive with knowledge: Engaging communities through living libraries

Amy Ashmore
School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

Library Student Journal,
October, 2010


This paper provides a discussion of the development and implementation of living library programs in the context of creating and fostering community engagement in the library. It provides a discussion of oral information transmission and examines the inclusivity of living library program models. Possible criticisms of the living library as a concept are addressed, and potential benefits in relation to learning, alternate modes of knowledge transmission, and library-community relations are discussed. This discussion is framed by some of the practical aspects of living libraries in terms of different program types, organizational models, and issues of implementation. The paper concludes that living libraries can be used to expand library services through encouraging discourse within the community, and that these programs have the potential to increase the awareness of library services and promote the role of the library within a wider social context.


In 2000, a group of young activists decided to organize an event at the Danish Roskilde Festival that would encourage dialogue and build relationships among festival participants. The members of this group chose to create a project intended to promote the exchange of information that was modeled after library services: a living library. In a living library, unlike a traditional library, people become resources. Human beings act as “people on loan” and are “borrowed” by library patrons for a specific length of time. When the project originated, it was focused around the idea of overcoming prejudice. Thus, the individuals who were part of the living library catalog (the “living books”) were all members of groups that have been marginalized, stereotyped, or stigmatized in some way. The intention was for these individuals to be able to communicate their experiences with others, encouraging understanding, acceptance, and constructive discussion.

Living libraries have the ability to foster engagement within the library community and provide an opportunity to expand the ways in which libraries offer information to users. Oral sources of information have a long history as an effective means of information transmission, and this essay will discuss the role that living libraries can play in providing access to these sources. Although the original model of living libraries as a means to overcoming prejudices is a significant one, it is also possible to move beyond this model to utilize the living library concept in new ways. This essay will address possible criticisms of the living library as a concept and discuss its potential benefits in relation to learning, alternate modes of knowledge transmission, and library-community relations. This discussion is framed by some of the practical aspects of living libraries in terms of different program types, organizational models, and issues of implementation. Living libraries can be used to expand library services through encouraging discourse within the community, and have the potential to increase the awareness of library services and promote the role of the library within a wider social context.

It should be noted that this essay makes the comparison between oral information transmission and information transmission through books. Although information is transmitted in a wide variety of formats including both print and electronic sources, the metaphor of people as books used by living library projects provides an apt means of comparison between different types of information sources, and is meaningful to a discussion of community engagement through information sharing. However, the comparison of human beings to books is meant to include other information media such as magazines, newspapers, and Web sites.

Oral Sources and Information Transmission: How We Learn From Living Libraries

Although the first living library event took place in 2000, the concept of people as books is much older than that. In 1973, oral historian George Ewart Evans wrote of the people he was interviewing that, “although [they] were walking books, I could not just leaf them over. They were persons” (Evans, 1973). This statement suggests that living books are in many ways profoundly different from non-human information sources. The ways in which we gain information from people are often very different from the ways in which we gain information from books. Scholarship concerning oral history can help to illuminate some of the reasons why this is the case. In The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Paul Thompson writes that the “creative and co-operative nature” of a personal dialogue between a seeker of information and its source can allow for different kinds of knowledge to be transmitted (1988, p.26), knowledge which might not be contained in any other source. Thus, we may in many cases understand information gathered from human sources differently from the way we understand the information we gain from books and other sources.

It is also important to note, as Alessandro Portelli does, that “written and oral sources are not mutually exclusive” (1991, p. 64). Oral and written sources can challenge but also reinforce each other. A study by Heidi Julien and David Michels suggests that in personal and work-related situations, people use other people as sources of information over 50% of the time (p. 8). The use of what Julien and Michels refer to as “informal” sources of help (e.g., people) remains an important aspect of information seeking behavior (2000, p. 8). Interestingly, it was noted that participants in the study often chose to seek out other people as sources of information even if this was not the most convenient method. Julien and Michels write that human beings are able “to offer advice on the basis of experience and to address complex or ‘fuzzy’ issues” more readily than are more traditional formal sources of information (2000, p. 12). Alessandro Portelli claims that oral sources simply have a different kind of credibility than do written ones. Although it is also important to note that in many cases written records are just as subject to bias and selective memory as are oral sources, what is particularly valuable about oral testimony is not necessarily strict adherence to a specific set of facts, but the inclusion of elements such as imagination and symbolism (Portelli, 1991, p. 68). Oral sources often focus less on events and more on the discovery of meaning (Portelli, 1991, p. 67).

One of the primary functions of living libraries is to provide access to oral sources of information. It is clearly within the mandate of most libraries to preserve and provide access to information, and living libraries provide an alternative method of doing this, acting as a complement to other more traditional library services. Because the process of information exchange in the living library is one of dialogue, living library “readers” are able to pinpoint the specific things they wish to know, employing a method of learning which can be extremely precise and direct. As those participating as living library “books” often represent a certain perspective or group, many users may already have specific questions or ideas in mind when selecting an individual they want to “read” (see Matheson, 2009, for examples). These are often questions that other information sources cannot adequately answer. Users of living libraries are seeking a personal connection with another human being in order to understand subjective experiences that are not their own. Unlike many other information sources, oral sources provide an explicitly dialogic relationship between information seeker and source, and thus living library participation requires learning on the part of both the “reader” and the person being “read.”

In fact, Lucy Kinsley notes in her article on the Lismore Living Library that being a living book is also very much a self-directed process of discovery (2009, p. 22). Living books at the Lismore Living Library are encouraged to create and revise descriptions or “catalog details” about themselves. Kinsley writes that “the Living Book can become aware [that] the details may not be exactly what was intended” and books often revise these details multiple times (2009, p. 22). This concept of revision is extremely significant in that it suggests that in the process of creating a narrative in cooperation with readers, books actually alter their understanding of their own self-appointed topic and what it means to them. Thus the information transmission that takes place in a living library setting is often not a one-way knowledge transfer, but an evolving and interactive learning process in which both the interviewer and the interviewee must use a different “set of skills” than would be used in traditional reading (Thompson, 1988, p. 26). Although the languge used to describe living libraries is based on traditional modes of knowledge transmission, naming a “reader” and a person being “read,” this description does not fully encapsulate what can take place during living library exchanges. Living library books are not passively “read,” but instead are engaged in a dialogic process in which both parties take in and process information, thus gaining new knowledge of both self and other.

Redefining Living Libraries

The creators of the first living library wanted to foster dialogue between individuals who, due to their own prejudices or other circumstances, might not normally have the chance or make the choice to speak in a neutral environment. They write that “working with the Living Library you realize that everybody has prejudices. We don’t believe that there is a single person on the planet, who can truly say they are free of prejudice” (Living Library, “Prejudice”). This is a focus which has been maintained at many other living library events since 2000. The organizer of an event in London, for example, explicitly advised readers to “choose a book to reflect their prejudice,” and living books at some events wear shirts with the highly charged question “What’s Your Prejudice?” printed on the front (Treble, 2008). This model can be extremely valuable in that it explicitly promotes exposing people to new ideas that they might not encounter through other information sources, suggesting that patrons interact with and learn from those whose experiences may be very different from their own. The aim is not to create conflict, but to promote understanding and tolerance through dialogue; the focus on specific aspects of a person’s identity can help to structure the conversation which takes place. However, the concept of explicitly addressing prejudice is not without problems, especially when working within a library environment which aims to be inclusive of all users.

The creators of the living library concept directly state that their intent is not to label readers as bigots, and that many choose to “take out” living books against whom they hold no prejudice (Living Library, “Reader”). Yet when the overt focus of a living library event is to overcome prejudice, it is possible that some users will be less willing to participate because they do not want to be seen as prejudiced against any individual they wish to speak to; the statement “What’s Your Prejudice?” can be interpreted as accusatory. As living books are asked to represent a specific group, it can be argued that they are being further marginalized by being asked to represent only one aspect of their identity. It is also problematic that in many cases living books are not treated as individuals, but primarily as members of the social group which they are representing — the Living Library Organizer’s Guide explicitly refers to having several “copies” of a living book title on loan simultaneously, thus equating the experiences of all members representing a specific group (Abergel et al., 2005, p. 39). Although a focus on overcoming prejudice can be a positive and useful model for living libraries, there are also other ways in which living libraries can frame the services they provide, many of which are already being implemented in living libraries both in Canada and around the world.

Living Library services are useful not only as a means of exposing people to new ideas by putting them in contact with those they wouldn’t normally speak to, but also have extremely useful applications within specific communities of people who share common experiences. As Julien and Michels point out, in informal settings people often seek advice, support, or inspiration from those who have had experiences similar to their own (2000, p.12), and this need can be harnessed by living library organizers. In her description of a living library event at the University of Guelph, Dawn Matheson describes this taking place between the living book “Recovering Anorexic” and a reader who currently suffered from an eating disorder (2009). Living library programs for and about specific user groups have also been created, such as an Indigenous Living Library and a Youth Living Library, both of which took place in Australia. Living libraries can also be used to provide information for or showcase the talents of specific communities. Douglas College in British Columbia, for example, is home to an ongoing program which is “not so much concerned with breaking down prejudices as much as with sharing the incredible wealth of talent and expertise that Douglas College and the community we serve contains” (Living Library, “Douglas College”).

Hence, there are many ways in which living libraries and their functions can be reconceptualized or expanded to include a greater diversity of types of programs and services. Information seekers clearly value a wide variety of personal information sources, and living libraries can provide this, allowing for new learning opportunities as well as fostering connections between those with common interests. Integrating the desire for personal sources of information into the library in the form of living libraries that serve the needs of a variety of communities can lend increased legitimacy to the concept of human beings as authoritative and unique sources of information.

Organizing and Implementing Living Library Programs

One of the reasons why living library programs have been so successful is that, although they are volunteer-intensive, they are generally fairly low-cost and can be adapted to a wide variety of settings, including academic and public libraries, festivals and book fairs, schools, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and corporations. They can even be offered online or be taken on the road as a part of a traveling living library tour (Living Library, “Settings”). Such programs do, however, require a significant organizational commitment, from recruiting volunteers to evaluating the service provided, and the focus that is chosen for a specific program will directly impact its implementation. This essay is not intended to provide a comprehensive overview of how to organize living library programs (see Abergel, et al. and Living Libraries Australia for organizational guides), but will briefly examine some aspects of organizing and implementing these types of programs. Many living library events are held outside of libraries, but the largest single group of organizers come from the public library sector (Living Library, “Organizer”). In Canada, many living library events have also been held on university and college campuses (Matheson, 2009; Treble, 2008). Although many living libraries are one-time events, there have been an increasing number of ongoing events, and such programs present a particular set of challenges and benefits.

One such program is the Lismore Living Library in New South Wales, which hosts monthly living library events. In an article on the library, librarian and organizer Lucy Kinsley describes the functioning of the program, including how the project was organized and supported, the process of recruiting and training living books, and the ways in which the program functions to promote the library (2009). The Lismore program, although in many ways similar to some of the earlier living library events on which it is based, does not frame itself specifically in terms of addressing prejudices, but on the closely related theme of forging connections within the community by “breaking down barriers” to communication (Kinsley, 2009, p. 20). Although the program is structured in a very similar way, the resulting tone of the event is subtly different. Volunteer books wear shirts which say simply “Book,” and titles in the collection range from “Sudanese Refugee” to “Farmer” (Kinsley, 2009). Like other types of library collections, the living collection must be conscientiously managed and preserved. In order to allow for the maintenance required to mount an ongoing event, Lismore has developed a library management system that works specifically with the unique nature of the living collection (Kinsley, 2009, p. 21). Human resources often have many more needs than other types of resources and, especially in the case of an ongoing program, these needs must be recognized and met. This could include things like limiting the number of readings a living book can be required to participate in within a given session, providing adequate support for living books including those with special needs, and providing time and structure for living books to debrief after readings or to read other living books (see Kinsley, 2009; Abergel et al., 2005).

Another ongoing living library program is that at Douglas College in New Westminster, British Columbia. A list of living books, who are all affiliated with the college, is available through the college’s Web site, and potential readers can browse the list and e-mail books to arrange a meeting (see Unlike the events at Lismore, this program requires quite limited maintenance, and is very much centered around the initiative of the person seeking information (H. Postma, personal communication, 5 November 2009). This program is educationally focused, aimed at showcasing and sharing knowledge and ideas within the Douglas College community, and in this sense has moved quite far away from the original focus of living libraries in relation to addressing prejudices. Books in the catalog cover such topics as “Mental Health Law” and “Photography” (Douglas College, “Living Library”). Douglas College also organizes and promotes one-off community living library events which are more in keeping with the traditional living library model; however, organizer Hazel Postma noted that there is a great deal of crossover between the two types of events, making the overall intent and focus of both types more diverse (personal communication, 5 November 2009).

In terms of the promotion of these events, both Postma and Kinsley suggest that over time an ongoing event actually lessens the amount of promotion that needs to be done, as promotion becomes passed on through media and word of mouth in what Kinsley refers to as a “ripple effect” (2009, p. 23). The notion of promotion in living libraries is twofold. First, it is necessary to promote living library events themselves in order to reach as many members of the community as possible. Second, it should not be forgotten that living library events are a way to attract patrons to the library and promote library services in general. While this should not be the focus of the events, organizers should be cognizant of the ways in which living library programs fit in with and impact other library services. Sustainability of the program is a unique concern of ongoing projects. In terms of projects such as Lismore’s, which utilize library space, attention must be paid to preventing disruption of other library services, especially as these events are taking place on a regular basis. As previously mentioned, care must also be taken to provide adequate support for volunteers, and this is especially true in programs like Douglas College’s where living books may have infrequent contact with organizers, who are not actually present during the readings which take place. Yet despite these challenges, organizing and participating in living library events can be of great benefit to libraries, showcasing them as dynamic community hubs of discussion and conversation. These events can help to promote the library within the wider community it aims to serve, as well as encourage a sense of community within the library itself.

Living Libraries and Community Engagement

As Andrew Whitworth states, “communities are not simply gatherings of otherwise unconnected people” (2009, p. 17). A “community” can mean many things, including citizens of a city or a neighborhood, or members of a user group. Yet although the members of a community may be extremely diverse, communities are fostered by shared understandings, stories, moments, or places. Individual lives are supported and given meaning by the communities of people that surround them, and this is in large part done through participation and communication. In fact, Whitworth explicitly notes the connection between the words “community” and “communication,” which share a common root (2009, p. 17). The increased valuation of oral sources, as Paul Thompson points out, has the ability to radically reshape the relationship between history and the community, and the way a community sees its own history (1988, p. 26). Oral history “brings history into, and out of, the community” (Thompson, 1988, p. 28). In the case of direct person-to-person interviews such as occur in living libraries, information is not taken away by a separate interpreter and then re-presented to readers, but flows directly from source to reader, allowing for “direct self-representation” on the part of both book and reader (Garbutt, 2008, p. 276). Information remains within the community, creating a sense that a user community possesses important and unique information which should be shared. Living libraries engage the community by providing a concrete opportunity for this sharing to take place, and creating awareness of the significance of the information that is being shared and its potential impact on specific members of the community and the community as a whole. As Thompson writes, “through oral history the community can, and should, be given the confidence to write its own history” (1988, p. 26).

Living libraries have the ability to place the library, whether as a physical space or as a concept, at the center of a community’s consciousness. Such programs promote the idea that the library is a place of information and learning, while expanding the conception of what kinds of information the library is able to provide. By promoting access to personal sources of information, a library can signify its valuation of the people that make up the library community. Living libraries can also bring new visitors and potential library members into the library through showcasing “a different and powerful way of providing information and knowledge to the community” (Living Libraries Australia, “Indigenous Living Library”, p. 15). They offer a means for building connections between community members, as well as provide the opportunity to foster new partnerships with other community groups or institutions (Living Libraries Australia, “Indigenous Living Library”).1 Many living libraries help to create connections by providing a space for the development of a kind of “community memory.” As Jonassen, et al. state, “communities of learners...can be seen as a kind of widely distributed memory with each of its members storing a part of the group’s total memory” (2003, p. 5). Through living libraries, more and more of this memory can become shared among the community.


What repeatedly emerges from a discussion about living libraries is the fact that, even if it is often not “officially” recognized, people desire and require human sources of information, and the ways in which they learn from these sources can be quite different from the ways in which they learn from other types of sources. During a living library reading, both book and reader have the opportunity to gain new knowledge and insight, and even to re-evaluate their own previous knowledge. Living library services can be imagined, structured, and implemented in a variety of different ways, yet often these varied means can achieve similar ends in terms of promoting learning through dialogue. Through living library programs, libraries can encourage connections between members of the communities they serve and between the community and the library itself. Living libraries can allow for the production of knowledge and meaning within the library in new and sometimes unexpected, but often incredibly productive ways.


1"Indigenous Living Library Book Project 2009" is no longer available.


Abergel, R., et al. (2005). Don’t judge a book by its cover!: The living library organizer’s guide. Budapest: Council of Europe Publishing. Retrieved November 3, 2009 from

Douglas College. Living Library. Retrieved December 4, 2009 from

Evans, G. E. (1973). Approaches to interviewing. Oral History, 1(4), 56-71.

Garbutt, R. (2008). The living library: Some theoretical approaches to a strategy for activating human rights and peace. In Garbutt, Rob (ed.) Activating human rights and peace: Universal responsibility conference 2008 conference proceedings (pp.270-278). Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia. Retrieved November 13, 2009 from

Jonassen, D., et al. (2003). Learning to solve problems with technology: A constructivist perspective. London, UK: Merrill.

Julien, H., & Michels, D. (2000). Source selection among information seekers: Ideals and realities. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 25(1), 1-18.

Kinsley, L. (2009). Lismore’s living library: Connecting communities through conversation. Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, 22(1), 20-25.

Living Libraries Australia. Indigenous Living Library Book Project 2009. Retrieved December 7, 2009 from

Living Library. Douglas College, British Columbia. Retrieved December 7, 2009 from

Living Library. How to become an organizer. Retrieved December 7, 2009 from

Living Library. Settings for a living library. Retrieved December 7, 2009 from

Living Library. Take out your prejudices. Retrieved December 6, 2009 from

Living Library. Why become a reader? Retrieved November 7, 2009 from

Matheson, D. (March 12, 2009). Talking books that actually talk back. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 30, 2009 from

Portelli, A. (1991). What makes oral history different. In R. Perks and A. Thomson (Eds.), The oral history reader (pp. 63-74). London: Routledge.

Thompson, P. (1988). The voice of the past: oral history. In R. Perks and A. Thomson (Eds.), The oral history reader (pp. 21-28). London: Routledge.

Treble, P. (July 23, 2008). I’d like to renew lesbian feminist. Macleans. Retrieved November 6, 2009 from

Whitworth, A. (2009). Information obesity. Oxford: Chandos Publishing.

Author's Bio

Amy Ashmore is an MLIS candidate at the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. She is interested in public service librarianship and user-centered approaches to information provision and instruction.

Go to Top


  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Oral Sources and Information Transmission: How We Learn From Living Libraries
  4. Redefining Living Libraries
  5. Organizing and Implementing Living Library Programs
  6. Living Libraries and Community Engagement
  7. Conclusion
  8. Endnotes
  9. References
  10. Author's Bio

Copyright, 2011 Library Student Journal | Contact