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Living Library Project to Remind us not to Judge a Book by its Cover

Have you ever heard a story and felt like you wanted to sit down with the protagonists for a cup of coffee to discuss their actions or listen to their version of the events? In the Living Library, it is possible! Bálint Molnár project manager and two participants of the initiative tell us how.

Presenting the project


Homosexual, homeless, Jewish; these are only some of the "books" that can be borrowed at the Living Library. They are not bound, they do not fit into your handbag and you cannot put a bookmark into them. However, you can ask to borrow them, you can sit down with them and you can be sure that all your questions will be answered about their stories.


How? It is all very simple. When the Living Library project appears somewhere, public spaces turn into libraries and volunteers who feel strongly about a certain social group they belong to turn into books for the day: they write a summary of their story that can be browsed by the visitors and wait until they get a request to be borrowed by someone. Then they sit down with their readers in a quiet corner and the reader is free to ask any questions that they are curious to find out the answers to. There are no taboos or stupid queries; the only goal is that visitors leave without any unanswered doubts and a new insight about the social group that the ’book’ represents.


The project is based on the contact hypothesis theory – explains Bálint Molnár, the Hungarian project coordinator –, which says that contact between different groups reduces stereotypes. By providing opportunities for people to meet the representatives of specific socially excluded groups, we are hoping to give them the chance to get their questions answered, re-evaluate their prejudices and base their opinion on their personal experience rather than on hearsay stories. Most Hungarian people never get the chance to have an in-depth conversation with prisoners, ex-alcoholics or amputees, so most of their opinion on these groups is coming from the media. However, a personal encounter can provide such a valuable experience that it can dismantle previously constructed images and can help people reshape their judgements.


Incredible and unforgettable memory


It was an incredible experience – says Edit Molnáné Belkó, a primary school teacher who got the opportunity to borrow three living books during a European Union teachers’ training course. I had never even met a transgender person, let alone been able to ask questions about how her parents reacted when she told them about her sexual identity or what the first moment was when she realised that she was not like the other girls around her. I just sat there with my jaw dropped in astonishment, soaking all her words in and wondering why people cannot be bothered to find out more about these people before they form their opinions about them.


When my friend asked me to participate in the programme, I was more than happy to do so – remembers Áron Laki, a volunteer ’book’, representing Gothic subculture. In my everyday life, I am confronted with stereotypes, judgements and even discrimination on an everyday basis and I find it extremely important to do my best to provide people with information. If people judge me based on well-informed facts, that is fine, but getting sneered at in the streets for something somebody made up to monger sensation is just sad. This project is a great way to stand up in front of people and let them know that most of what they think they know about Goths is based on false legends told by people who have never even met a member of our subculture in their lives. After questions like ’Do you really sacrifice animals at your gatherings?’ and ’Can you differentiate the a Rocker from a Goth based on their clothes?’, I was forced to realise how little people know about us. Unfortunately, the sufferers of the lack of information are not them, but us, because it is us who get rejected after a job interview just because of our clothes and the associations they evoke in our potential employer’s mind. I felt very happy to see some people starting to understand us after the ’book reading sessions’ and realising that our way of thinking is not so much different from theirs after all. However, there is still a long way to go and the downside of this project is that it only manages to reach people who are open enough to choose to read us.


Find the opportunity to get to know the project!


The project is getting more and more popular, and we get a lot of enquiries about where to find us – adds Bálint Molnár. We try to be present at as many events and venues as possible, and we have had as diverse hosts as universities, music festivals, training seminars, NGOs, and if a certain community is thinking about organising a Living Library session, all they have to do is contact us, and we will do our best to help them. In 2012, we decided to launch a subproject aimed at secondary schools, since, in order to promote a future without hate, we need to make sure that the next generation grows up fighting against negative stereotypes. It was welcomed by unexpected success, so the project continues and we hope to reach as many young people as possible.


No society is completely homogenous and one of the basic mottos of the European Union is ’Unity in Diversity’. By letting people see this diversity through their own eyes, we help them appreciate the colours others people bring into their lives and make them realise that one way or another, everybody belongs to a minority, so there is no reason to condemn people who are a different in a certain aspect at all. The original project was created by a community whose member got insulted because of their ethnicity. By providing a space for this project to grown, we will do our best to make sure that no citizen of the European Union has to put up with such behaviour again – he concludes.


Judit Molnár



Special thanks for the pictures to the Living Library!


The source of the main picture: Charles Cleg's site