Compassion through Conversation: Reflection of a Michigan Library Scholar

Cartoon of network connections

Compassionate conversation can lead to meaningful connections in the library's community.

    As an aspiring community-oriented social justice public librarian, who is member of the Progressive Librarians Guild, dreams of marching with a Radical Reference collective, and who spent the summer working with the Library Diversity Council and their subcommittee (the Inclusive Interpersonal Skill Series) creating an anti-oppression workshop, you could say that I am a bit of a progressive librarian nerd. Originally attracted to libraries because of my love of books and silence (I am aware that is not a good reason, now), I switched gears from my unintentionally ignorant and colonialist interest in law to a path towards librarianship. Now, I am a rising senior studying history and writing, currently preparing for graduation and the “real world.” On this road of preparation, I worked as an intern for the Michigan Library Scholars program, specifically for the Living Library committee.

    A “living library” is a concept originally called “The Human Library Project.” The concept is an organization (usually a library) hosting a group of people with certain identities to be “books” in the “living library” where “readers” (attendees of the event) can “check books out” and have a conversation with that “human book” about their identity. The purpose of this event is to allow a space for people who do not have that identity to learn about it in have a safe, judgement-free space where they can ask “dumb” questions. Also, these events allow attendees to challenge the stereotypes they hold about certain identities by speaking directly to a person who has such an identity. These settings encourage understanding and compassion in the wake of intense (and possibly difficult) conversations. The U-M Library is currently working on recruiting “human books” for their “collection,” and plans for their first event to focus on investing in ability and exploring the intersection of disability and international identity.

    One of the reasons I decided to apply to become a Michigan Library Scholar was because of the description of the Living Library. At that point, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career as a social justice librarian, and I knew that this kind of event would foster incredible dialogue. In my work as an organizer and student leader in a social justice organization, we often have events similar to this, where a group of people with a certain identity talk about said identity and answer questions. Even if there is a turnout of seven people, I always say that “it is impossible to have a conversation about identity that isn’t productive” (if held and facilitated correctly). If people have the space to speak their truth and feel able (as in “safe and comfortable enough”) to do so, we can connect on a deeper, more human level. Staring directly at a person whose life and perception of the world may be radically different than your own and then hearing their story and finding common ground - identifying with their ideas and emotions - is a powerful thing.

This internship was an incredibly valuable experience for me. I was able to learn so much about librarianship and how social justice and can be worked into libraries. Some of my longer-term tasks during this internship were the creation of a database to house the Living Library’s “human book” collection and the creation of promotional materials, such as flyers for events, and an outreach plan (which outlined the project’s purpose, target audience, and tactics for outreach and advertisement). I work with the library in a few other jobs, and one aspect I that I found interesting was how often this kind of work intersects. For example, at one of my other jobs, I am a library science intern in charge of creating a database for public use, so I was able to use the skills I learned there when I was creating the Living Library’s database. I also work in the library’s Communications Office, so I used my knowledge of how to create an effective outreach plan for the Living Library’s purpose.

    As this internship comes to an end, I must say how incredibly grateful I am to have been part of this project. I have learned more than I ever expected to, met great people, had intense, beautiful discussions, and have become even more immersed in the library world. I am saddened to see this internship come to an end, but I leave knowing more than before, both professionally and personally. I would especially like to thank my mentors, Jasmine Pawlicki and Jeff Witt, the Michigan Library Scholars program coordinator - Gabriel Dunque, my fellow interns (Miriam, Kathleen, and Gabriel), and the members of the Library Diversity Council. Thank you!