Novel idea? Browsing through a 'Human Library'

Novel idea? Browsing through a 'Human Library'

The Human Library held on Sunday (Oct 30) allowed participants to "borrow" people and listen to their stories. But can you read a person like a book? Channel NewsAsia's Melissa Zhu finds out.

Human Library
"Books" on loan at the Human Library: (from left) Chan See Ting, Sazzad Hossain and Mitz. (Photos: Shawn Lim)

SINGAPORE: It was her boyfriend's sister's wedding and 20-year-old Chan See Ting wanted to look good.

Sitting in a salon getting her hair done, the hairstylist pointed to a tiny bald patch on her head, about the size of a thumbprint. The hairstylist asked: Had she knocked her head against something, causing the hair to stop growing there?

See Ting could not recall.

Young, cheerful and outgoing, she did not think much of it at first. She told her boyfriend about the incident, and he agreed there was a small spot there but said it did not seem like anything major.

It was only when more spots started appearing all over her head over the next few weeks that she started to panic.


See Ting was my first "book", or speaker, at the Human Library. The one-day event on Sunday (Oct 30) was built around the concept of breaking down barriers between people through frank conversation. Instead of borrowing books, we showed up to "borrow" people we would not normally interact with and ask them anything in 25-minute "reading" sessions.

At my second reading session, there were eight of us, huddled around a table like many others around us. We had borrowed Sazzad Hossain's time, and the clock was ticking away.

"Let's have a two-way dialogue," Sazzad announced, once everyone was seated. "I don't want to be the only one talking. Let's all introduce ourselves."

His eyes sharp and searching and his smile broad, he commanded the attention of the table easily. This was clearly a person used to speaking in front of a crowd.

One by one, we introduced ourselves, taking turns to state our names and occupations. Like the summaries at the backs of books, these details outlined who we were without giving any of our plots away.

Then it was Sazzad's turn. He explained that his family was from Bangladesh, that he came to Singapore when he was 11 and that he was now a Singapore citizen serving national service.

Since junior college, the 22-year-old has also been juggling his commitments with running SDI Academy, a social enterprise that helps migrant workers improve their English and offers training for computer skills.

Sazzad human library
Sazzad Hossain running a "reading" session at the Human Library. (Photo: Shawn Lim)

Where he lived in Lakeside, there was a large migrant worker population. Some workers he encountered frequently took to him like a brother, buying him coffee and telling him about their struggles in Singapore, unable to communicate simple things like their ailments to a doctor.

To help a few friends overcome these daily obstacles, Sazzad agreed to run a small, informal English class for them. Now his academy has 900 students and expects to hit 1,000 by December.

At one point, a girl beside me picked up a card from the table, meant to be used as prompts in case the conversation ran dry. "What would you tell Singaporeans if you could?" she asked, reading the question from the card.

As he replied, she put the card back in the stack on the table. That was the first and last time anyone used it. It was as though with that first question, a dam had broken.

The book was open, and we could not stop flipping.


Mitz spends her Sundays running the Dream Catchers, a group that aims to raise awareness of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community among Filipino workers in Singapore.

They practise singing and dancing, and every year they have a pageant to showcase their talents. The S$1,000 prize money is cobbled together from the group's members, who number about 100.

The soft-spoken foreign domestic worker started working here 14 years ago and met her girlfriend at a beauty pageant for overseas Filipino workers in Singapore.

While she described her relationship with her current employer as very good and supportive, she struggles with homesickness, she said.

In December, she will make an annual journey back home. She looks forward to taking her family out to eat and to planning outings together.

One day, perhaps in the next five years, she hopes to start a small food business or teach children back home.

Mitz was my third and final book, and this time, the details did not flow quite as freely. The conversation stopped, then started, then stopped again. But it was also a lot to ask, for someone to open up the most intimate details of their lives to a bunch of strangers in 25 minutes.

Perhaps, I thought, like books, some people have heavier, more impenetrable covers shielding the volumes they have inside.

Mitz human library
Mitz at one of her reading sessions. (Photo: Shawn Lim)


My triptych of reading sessions gave me just a glimpse into the many tentative human connections made at The Red Box at Somerset on Sunday. Over six hours, the Human Library saw 400 participants attending up to three reading sessions by 48 books each.

Lead organisers Kelly Ann Zainal, a mental health researcher, and Ajith Isaac Amrithraj, a PhD student at the National University of Singapore's School of Medicine, told me they did not anticipate the popularity of the event.

"We initially targeted 150 participants but after the event page went up on Facebook, we quickly got about 1,000 people interested and 700 people signed up in weeks, so we had to close registration early," Kelly recalled. The Facebook event page was started on Aug 27 and registration closed on Sep 10, almost two months before the event.

Asked why they thought the project was so popular, the organisers pointed to the novelty of confronting labels and the traction certain social issues had been gaining in the media.

"The irony here is that we're trying to address labels, but at the same time we're giving labels to people," Ajith said. "But the difference here is that some of these are labels that people choose to have; they form part of their identity and they own these labels and it empowers some of them ... The conditions that you're with are the conditions that you have, and you live with it.

"I think some people wanted to come and see the two sides of it, giving people labels and at the same time trying to address them - how does that happen? I think it was curiosity."

Kelly said: "In the recent past, there have been a lot of issues coming up in the media, about mental health, migrant worker rights ... So these issues are still very fresh on everyone's minds. Then people hear about this event, where everything is kind of all-in-one - many, many different kinds of people who get to hear about so many different stories."

Human library wide angle shot
Groups of "readers" and "books" gather at The Red Box. (Photo: Shawn Lim)

Kelly and Ajith said they were inspired to pull their team of 46 organisers and volunteers together after attending a smaller Human Library event at a university in Singapore.

With their Human Library, the organisers wanted to encourage conversations between people from different backgrounds.

"The human books are people that you normally might not get to talk to in your daily lives, so when you speak to them, you tackle some of the assumptions that you had," Kelly said.

Ajith added: "Here is a platform where you can ask those harder questions which you were shy about asking (because) you didn’t want to offend the person, but you’re asking from a place purely out of curiosity. I think that’s essentially it - we just want people to have those kinds of conversations which you can’t normally have."

The organisers said they are looking to run the next Human Library event in the first quarter of next year, although details are not firmed up yet.


For See Ting, now 24, sharing her story of struggling with alopecia - a rare disease that causes the immune system to attack the hair follicles, causing them to fall off - gives her strength.

"Even though it's not pretty, even though it is still the process of struggling and it's still messy, I think talking about it would actually bring clarity."

In August last year, she took the brave step of publishing a public Facebook post about her condition to crowdsource for a support group of others like her. It went viral, amassing more than 15,000 shares to date.

See Ting said she has received comments of support from all over the world and built a support group of 60 to 70 alopecia sufferers who still keep in contact online, far exceeding her hopes of a group of about five people.

The industrial relations officer with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was initially apprehensive about posting publicly, fearing negative comments or that no one would reply.

"What really helped me take that step was the good that could potentially come out of it. There is this saying that everything you desire is on the opposite side of fear, because fear really reveals what you desire. You are afraid because there is something you want and you're afraid that you can't get it.

"So I asked myself what it was that I wanted, and I knew that if anyone out there actually felt alone, I wanted the person to know that he or she was not alone. That there is someone who is going through the same struggle and that struggling together is actually very powerful."

At her reading session, See Ting mentioned that some of her guiding principles were courage, authenticity and vulnerability. Speaking candidly about her condition and her fears that others would not be able to love her, these traits were on full display.

She also shared that in desperation, she took oral steroids to treat her condition despite the health risks. The medications suppress the immune system, which stops it from attacking the hair follicles but also weakens the body's defences against illnesses, she said. And despite initially seeming to work, she soon relapsed. Now only undergoing Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments, some hair seems to be growing back, although it is in patches.

Noting ruefully that it might be less aesthetically pleasing than a completely bald head, See Ting nevertheless channelled positivity with a bright smile. "Well, it's actually quite soft. You can touch it," she said, bowing her head to let us do so.

On what Singaporeans could do to be more sensitive to people with her condition, See Ting said she would encourage more people to ask those with the condition questions directly instead of talking about it behind their back.

"I know that people are staring, and sometimes I wish that they'd actually ask ... I think questions actually help people to open up and to start talking about it. I would encourage people to ask questions but to ask kindly."

At one of her reading sessions, someone asked if she wished she had never had her condition.

"On hindsight, you realise that there is so much good that came out of it. I couldn't in good conscience say that I don't care, but seeing the good that came out of this for myself, for the community, for my loved ones ... I would go through this all over again."

See Ting smiling
(Photo: Shawn Lim)

Updates on the Human Library events can be found on the Human Library Singapore Facebook page or website.

Source: CNA/mz