‘Human library’ allows Penn State community to check out diverse life experiences

     Penn State junior Brian Davis addresses a small group of people who have

    Penn State junior Brian Davis addresses a small group of people who have "borrowed" him from the human library. (Eleanor Klibanoff/WPSU)

    Students and faculty volunteered to serve as “books” and answer questions about their lives. 

    Brian Davis is well-known around campus, and not just because the Penn State junior is always wearing a suit. He’s triple majoring and double minoring, is actively involved in organizations across campus and has the ear of the University’s president.

    But that’s not where his story begins.

    “So my story is about me growing up in West Philadelphia, and for me joining a gang, and to how that was for me every single day,” said Davis. “Whether that was getting shot at, fearing for my life, or fighting just because that was the mental capacity I had at the time.”

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    Davis joined a gang in Philadelphia when he was 15. He dealt drugs, saw friends get shot and believed that his life could only end in two places: jail or death. But he kept his grades up and eventually joined a football team, where he found mentorship and an outlet.

    When Davis was accepted to Penn State, he tried to separate his old life from his new life.

    “I felt like [telling] the story would hinder me in some ways in the future, but at the same time, I was like, you know, if I could survive all that, why would I be scared to tell my story?”

    An open book

    Davis shared his experiences publicly for the first time as part of Penn State’s “Human Library.” Davis volunteered to be a “book” that small groups could “borrow” for forty-five minutes at a time.

    Penn State’s human library featured speakers who’d experienced fat shaming, having a parent suffer from mental illness, coming to this country as an immigrant and growing up on an Indian reservation, among others.

    Megan Gilpin, Outreach Coordinator at Penn State Libraries, says the human library aimed to have a diversity of experiences not prominently represented on campus.

    “There are barriers out there that other people have experienced that I have not experienced,” said Gilpin. “We want people to recognize those and hear about those experiences so that they can learn about the people around them and the challenges that they face.”

    Gilpin first learned about human libraries at a conference last year, but the idea has been around since 2000, when the first one was held in Copenhagen. Since then, it has spread to 60 countries, popping up in community centers, classrooms and college campuses.

    “Sometimes we have questions about people that are different than us, and it’s nice to be able to actually ask those questions in a safe and supportive environment,” said Gilpin. “We’re hoping people can provide those answers and everybody will learn something new.”

    At the “bestsellers” panel afterwards, librarian Kelly Kaiserian asked Davis about leaving West Philadelphia behind for Penn State.

    “Do you ever encounter, if you go back, people who are angry with you, or resentful?”

    He answered, “I actually think when I go back home, I’m actually protected by my community. They’ve seen all the things I’m doing so they don’t want anything to happen to me at this point.”

    Penn State is hoping to make the human library an annual event. Many of this year’s “first editions” said they enjoyed sharing their time as books — but are looking forward to borrowing other’s experiences in the future.

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