Library patrons check out a diverse group of 'human books' in Baltimore County

A woman in an Islamic headscarf sat in Baltimore County’s Owings Mills branch library on Saturday trying to dispel misconceptions about Muslims.

Seated nearby, an African-American woman discussed subtle forms of racial profiling she said she has encountered.

And near her was a Baltimore County police lieutenant in his blue uniform who said he was “trying to break down some walls” between police and the community.

The trio was among 11 people who volunteered to serve as “living books” in the library system’s first-ever Human Library — an initiative in which people of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences are “checked out” by library patrons.

The idea was to provide the public with living, breathing resources as accessible as library volumes. Each “human book” sat in a folding chair at their own table and was interviewed by library guests who signed them out for 15-minute discussions on a form akin to the cards once used to borrow books.

Just like actual books, the subjects were assigned Dewey Decimal numbers placed on cardboard signs at their tables.

Zainab Chaudry, the Muslim woman from Howard County, was assigned 297.092, a category that includes books about people associated with Islam.

Chaudry volunteered for the event after hearing about it from a friend.

“I’d never heard of a Human Library and I was like, ‘Wait, what is this?’ My friend said ‘Do it, you’ll get checked out.’ I think people are curious about Muslims and they don’t have anybody to ask,” Chaudry said.

“I feel like we can benefit from talking to one another,” said Chaudry, who is the Maryland outreach director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit group. “We live in a society where everything is on social media and everybody is talking at each other behind screens and we lose so much context of what we’re trying to say,”

Chaudry was among the most popular subjects, having talked to three people in the first hour. The format resembled speed dating, with library staff helping shuttle people from table to table.

“Somebody asked me whether I need to take the hijab off in the shower. The answer is we do take it off when we shower,” she said, smiling.

The Human Library project is derived from a nonprofit in Copenhagen, Denmark, that created it around 2000. According to its Facebook page, the organization has seen Human Library projects in more than 70 countries worldwide, from Poland to Peru.

Variations have been tried in Chicago, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, among other American cities. Those involved share experiences on issues ranging from history to homelessness, race relations to parenting.

“We publish people like open books,” the group states.

Library patrons were presented to the subjects Saturday by staff.

“We have another reader for you,” they would say.

Some of the subjects, like Chaudry, were happy to receive exposure for their causes. Others — including the police lieutenant — were comfortable in one-on-one settings but declined to let their names be used in this article.

The police officer said he works an overnight shift and was delighted to talk to citizens.

“My precinct commander let me know about this. It’s a good opportunity,” he said. “The average citizen is in bed during my hours.”

Another “human book” told of her experiences being racially profiled as an African-American woman. She said she and her husband were once pulled over by police in their rented minivan and that he was handcuffed and dragged from the vehicle. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, but she said she couldn’t help but wonder if a white family would have been treated the same.

The library system said it hopes to repeat the event, perhaps every year.

The program blends “our traditional role with books with our role as a community convener and community hub,” said Julie Brophy, the adult and community engagement manager for the Baltimore County Public Library.

Brophy said the library put out the call on social media for human book subjects.

“We got more than 70 applications” she said. “We were looking for someone who had a story to tell – and a story that resonated today.”

Mitchell Weitzman of Owings Mills was among several dozen people who attended.

“I’m writing a children’s book hopefully to build bridges and tolerance, so I wanted to hear their stories,” Weitzman said.

He spoke with the police officer and Chaudry, among others.

“It’s just not the people that I run into in my circles every day,” he said.

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