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'Living books' to share the stories of their lives at library

For The Baltimore Sun
What if books could come to life so their subject could tell their own tales?

What if books could talk and explain why they shouldn't be judged by their covers? Thanks to an unusual library-sponsored program called the Human Library, they can.

"Living books" that can be "checked out" by area residents with a goal of dispelling stereotypes is the basis for a worldwide initiative that will make its debut in Howard County on March 11.

Organizers at the Howard County Library System say it is the first public library system in Maryland to partner with the Denmark-based Human Library Organization to present an event that will permit residents to sign up for 15-minute, one-on-one conversations with any of 15 living books.

The living books have powerful stories, and they don't shy away from telling them.

An executive assistant who had an arranged marriage hopes to dispel the idea that women such as her, who live in countries where such arrangements occur, are forced to wed near-strangers.

A retired veteran struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome wants to explain that most wounded warriors are productive community members, not people unable to function in society.

"We were looking for people who were willing to turn their own experiences into teachable moments," said Allison Jessing, the library system's events and seminars manager who is overseeing the unique program.

Staff was hoping to sign up 10 people as living books, she said; they ended up with 15 since the response to their invitation to apply was "overwhelming."

"All of our books are really open and giving people," Jessing said. "They shared their stories in emotional discussions [with library staff,] and then I went into my office after each one and cried."

"Human Library: Don't Judge a Book by its Cover" will take place from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Miller Branch Library.

Among the other 13 living books available at the county's first session are a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, a transgender man, a victim of a hate crime, and a person living with bipolar disorder.

County Executive Allan H. Kittleman will also serve as a living book for the event, said Victoria Goodman, a library communications specialist.

Kittleman will talk about growing up in Howard County with a single father (the late state senator Robert H. Kittleman,) who was also an engineer, elected official and beef farmer, she said.

"I learned early on that people are many things — labels never tell the whole story," his living-book biography reads in part.

The county executive said he also wanted to be on hand to support the other living books, Goodman said.

Alan Simpson, assistant manager at the Savage Branch Library, suggested last summer that the county library system join the initiative after viewing a video of a Human Library event that took place in Owensboro, Ky., near his hometown.

"People from all walks of life came together [in the video] to see each other as fellow human beings," he said. "I thought this program would be a good fit here because we do innovative things."

Farida Guzdar, who has served as executive assistant to Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington for a decade, will discuss her arranged marriage, which lasted 25 years. Her husband, a physicist, died in 2011.

The native of Calcutta wants people to know that women from India are not forced to take part in such an arrangement.

"It's not a shotgun marriage; it's more like an arranged meeting" that permits a woman to become acquainted with someone with the same background and values, said Guzdar, who is 61 and the mother of two adult children. "I have four cousins who never married, and were never pushed to."

Guzdar is Parsee, which means she adheres to an ancient monotheistic religion called Zoroastrianism, and that greatly influenced her decision to enter in to an arranged marriage with another Parsee, she said.

"I love my independent life in Columbia, and I feel out of place when I visit Calcutta now; no one there seems to develop as an individual," she said.

Guzdar is excited about taking part in the Human Library, which she joked is similar in format to speed-dating, and added that "people can ask me anything; I have nothing to hide."

Reed Kohberger, 61, is a Coast Guard veteran who coordinated rescue missions as a first responder. A Columbia resident, he retired in 2012 following a 33-year career and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The lieutenant commander still has nightmares every night "about the ones he couldn't save" during missions and remains hypervigilant about his surroundings – both remnants of his time in the military, he said.

Kohberger copes primarily by seeing a counselor, relying on family support and by devoting a lot of time to volunteering "because I still want to help people." He also blogs about University of Pittsburgh football.

"Most wounded warriors are like me," Kohberger said. "PTSD manifests itself differently in everyone, but we are accommodating it in the best ways we can."

Since the library only had 15 slots available, staff is maintaining a list of people who'd like to participate in future Human Library sessions, Jessing said, noting the frequency of these events has yet to be decided.

The HCLS Human Library is part of this year's Choose Civility initiative, which is Kindness Creates Community. The program will be presented in partnership with the Howard County Office of Human Rights and #OneHoward.

"It's a very innovative strategy to have people step into someone else's story," Jessing said. "We don't talk to each other enough. If we did, this wouldn't have to be a special event."

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