‘Human Books' on Loan at Penn State Library

Enter a library room at Penn State University on Wednesday and you'll hear junior Brian Anthony Davis describe his transformation from gang member, dodging bullets by age 16, to college student who has studied in eight countries.

Patrons that day can "borrow'' the 21-year-old student to ask questions and learn about a life different from theirs.

Enter another room and you'll hear Niharika Sharma, a director of student financial services, talk about a different sort of change, having emigrated from India to America to be with her future husband and being the object of curiosity and sometimes suspicion. Once at a social gathering years ago in Iowa, a woman asked her if the bindi on her forehead was a third eye.

"I was shocked,'' she said. "I didn't know how to respond.''

These speakers and a dozen others from Penn State, all participants in an unusual one-day campus event, have more in common than just interesting life stories. They are "human books,'' each having agreed to be "loaned'' to library patrons for 45-minute small group conversations inside the Pattee Library and Paterno Library.

The Human Library, a concept developed in Copenhagen, Denmark, uses dialogue to cut through stereotypes and prejudice. A movement for social change, it has spread to more than 70 countries since 2000.

Its debut at Penn State coincides with a campus campaign to highlight diversity and inclusion amid what is shaping up to be a less than civil time in America.

The "human books'' who will be in the spotlight Wednesday differ in their appearance, beliefs, points of view and life circumstances. They will broach topics from race, to sexual identity, to religion and delve into experiences from parental suicide to personal renewal.

One speaker will describe her life as a plus-size woman in a society that punishes obesity. Another "human book'' who worked for the Peace Corp in Panama will talk about the highs and lows of navigating a different culture. Still another speaker whose mother has mental illness will explore how that impacts a family.

"We expect that difficult questions will be asked, and they're welcomed and encouraged as long as everyone feels they are safe in that,'' said Megan Gilpin, outreach coordinator for Library Learning Services. "It's very important to us that everyone feels like it's a productive conversation.''

Patrons who search Penn State's website using the keywords "Human Library'' can browse synopses of the books and sign up for sessions, the earliest of which is at 1 p.m.

Davis, who is majoring in African American Studies, criminology and sociology, has a bent for social justice causes and hopes to one day do humanitarian work for the United Nations. That ambition is a far cry from his boyhood in West Philadelphia, where by age 15, he said he began following what seemed his only viable path-- a gang.

"I remember getting shot at a few times by people from other neighborhoods,'' he said. "I had to watch my back all the time.''

A protective mother and a fateful decision one night not to join others in a car ride that ended in a shooting helped pry him from that life, he said. Soul-searching on a bus ride home after his freshman year at Penn State proved just as pivotal, crystallizing for him how little he understood about the world and about himself.

In the weeks and months that followed that bus ride, Davis read voraciously and pushed himself in and out of the classroom, transforming himself from a first-year student who had struggled academically to an upperclassman who is moving toward a degree.

"That summer changed my life,'' he said.

Library worker Alia Gant, 28, another "human book,'' jokes that she "came out of the womb plus size.'' It became an issue as she got older, with others sometimes casting disapproving looks or worse.

She said what many think about plus-size people is often wrong.

"I play tennis. I go to the gym,'' she said. "I don't have high blood pressure and my cholesterol is not high.''

But often that's not what people see, something driven home during acts as routine as a daily commute. "Sometimes, if a bus is completely full, people will not sit next to me-- they'll stand,'' she said. "It makes me feel awful. I would rather stand up.''

Gant said she wanted to be part of the Human Library to call attention to a prejudice that people don't discuss. She said she is heartened to see personalities such as model Ashley Graham speak openly about her body type.

In October, Penn State rolled out its "All In'' campaign. In the months since, the campus of 47,000 students has hosted conferences, performance artists and other activities.

Some events have been as conspicuous as the giant 3-D historic images beamed onto the stone exterior of historic Old Main, where hundreds gathered and heard remarks by the school's President Eric Barron on the campaign's first night.

Other events have quietly gathered momentum among employees such as Ms. Gilpin, who saw a presentation about the Human Library while attending a conference last May and immediately thought of her own university.

"I'm always looking for new projects,'' she said. "I thought this was a great idea.''

She reached out to contacts across the University Park campus for leads, and an organizing committee soon began approaching individuals they believed would have a compelling story to tell.

Some invited to speak had to think about it, including Rebecca Peterson, 29, another campus library worker who grew up as a Mormon in a part of the Bible Belt where people around her had little exposure to her religion and were not always receptive to it.

"I wasn't sure I had an interesting story to tell,'' she said. "Would people really want to hear about it?''

But she liked the concept of an event that encouraged people to listen and ask questions in the name of better understanding, and she ultimately said yes. She said her experiences while living in Kansas taught her not to judge other groups. "I hope people feel comfortable asking questions and come away with a better understanding of the tenets of the church,'' she said.

The individual book sessions run through 5 p.m. After that, there will be a reception and a 7 p.m. panel discussion that will be streamed live to students, faculty and staff.

Sharma, 42, whose book title reads in part, "From India to Iowa,'' is involved in diversity issues at Penn State. She said her talk will touch on "change and learning how to adapt to change.''

She grew up in Delhi exposed to multiple religions and languages. It led her to take diversity for granted.

Arriving in the U.S. in 2002, she settled in Ames, Iowa, with her husband, a professor, who at the time was at Iowa State University. The gathering at which her bindi became a focus of curiosity was hosted by a colleague of her husband's who had asked if she would mind dressing in Indian attire.

The fact that people would have questions did not bother her as much as how bluntly they sometimes asked them. "Some of the questions made me think `Really, have people seen or explored the world around them?' "

Fifteen years later, she said she sometimes gets tired of having to explain herself, simply because she looks different, but also said "I feel like I'm an American because I am American.''

Asked what she hopes people with take home from her talk Wednesday, she paused momentarily, then grinned as she repeated words that creators of the Human Library placed on their website. "Don't judge a book by its cover.''

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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