Living books, inspiring stories: Avondale’s Human Library builds community and tolerance

Grace Paulson survived a raid by Sinhalese rebels in Sri Lanka thanks to a quick-thinking school dean who switched off the lights. The former refugee shared her story as one of the living books at Avondale Libraries’ Human Library. (Photo: Brenton Stacey)

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Borrowers kept a seven-time Paralympian and 13 other local living books busy at Avondale Libraries’ first Human Library (October 7).

Liesl Tesch brought with her some of the spoils of a sporting career that includes gold medals in sailing at the London and Rio games and experience competing for professional wheelchair basketball teams in the Spanish, Italian and French men’s leagues. She shares her medals because “I feel they belong to the people of Australia”. Conversation, as it did during the event, often then turns to disability and the challenges of social inclusion.

But Tesch also enjoyed answering questions about serving as Member for Gosford in the Legislative Assembly of the Parliament of New South Wales. “Being elected to parliament has ‘freshened’ my story and added to the challenges I face and the responsibility I have to listen to the community,” says Tesch. [pullquote]

Readers such as 13-year-old Aleisha enjoyed the interactivity. “I liked being able to hold Liesl’s medals and sit in her wheelchair.” Her father, Matt Tompson, stayed longer than he had intended because “my kids begged to hear ‘just one more story’. I left all the more richer. There is something almost sacred about hearing and interacting with the life story of a stranger.”

Tompson describes the Human Library as a multi-faceted experience. Readers, who could borrow over five 20-minute sessions, choose books from a catalogue featuring titles such as “Law enforcement: it’s not like Hollywood” and “The woman who quit her job to empower others”. They listened to stories of drug addiction and homelessness and of nursing at isolated mission stations in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. They met a lion cuddler who rode with the Hells Angels before clowning in the Amazon and a former refugee who survived a raid by Sinhalese rebels in Sri Lanka. One of the books, Dr Wayne French, a chaplain at Avondale College of Higher Education, led readers on a tour of his Tut Roadshow, a purpose-built semitrailer bringing the wonders of Ancient Egypt to schools and community centres along the east coast of Australia. 

Avondale Libraries presented the Human Library to reduce stereotypes and prejudice and to promote respect for human rights and dignity. “Everyone has a story to tell, a reason for why they act as they do,” says Library Services director Michelle Down. She describes these stories as interesting and inspiring—memorable. They “teach us better than any sermon ever could” and remind us “you should never judge a book by its cover”.

The Human Library returns to Avondale Libraries (Lake Macquarie campus) in April next year.

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