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Always innovative Toronto Public Library lets us check out humans as well as books

Participants engaging in the Human Library
Participants engaging in the Human Library - Voula Monoholias
In comfy green chairs in front of a massive and sunny window overlooking Bloor Street, several different conversations are taking place between pairings of strangers. A CBC journalist is telling someone about the stories he's covered. A Tibetan Buddhist monk is talking about his journey to Canada and about the importance of peace. I'm talking to 19-year-old Brandon Hibbs about his life. Originally from Newfoundland, Hibb's parents moved the family to Windsor, then Toronto to make sure their son, who has cerebral palsy, got the best services he could get. I ask Hibbs about school (he likes history and science), his career plans (broadcasting) and his love life (could be better). Hibbs holds nothing back.

"People appreciate my personality. I'm very straight to the point," Hibbs tells me and it's at this point I realize his name tag features a barcode that looks like a book's ISBN code. He's one of the volunteer "books" in the Toronto Public Library's Human Library project. I used my library card to check him out of the Bloor/Gladstone branch. I have to "return" Hibbs in a half-hour so another library user can check him out; you can't just pay a fine for the late return of a human book.

The idea of a Human Library first emerged in Copenhagen about a decade ago, as a way to break down prejudice by bringing people of different backgrounds together for one-on-one conversation. The Toronto Public Library held its first Human Library event at five branches on Nov. 6, attracting more than 200 users who checked out the likes of a police officer, a comedian, a sex-worker-turned-club-owner, a model and a survivor of cancer, homelessness and poverty. They're all volunteers whose lives would make good reading, but even better one-on-one chatting. The library is considering make the program long-term, so a supply of human books will be regularly available to readers.

As computer screens, tablets and ebook readers draw attention away from paper books, librarians have embraced information technology. For example, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) now has more than 8,000 ebooks on its website for download by card-holders. As they have been gradually overhauling the city's 99 branches, planners have been implementing new technology like self-serve checkouts. Last January, all branches began to offer free wireless Internet. But ironically, some of the programs that have made TPL a leader among library systems don't involve e-anything. Like with the Human Library project, many of its bolder efforts involve connecting people, information and ideas in a direct, non-mediated way. The cliche image of a library is a place full of books. But with more than 17.5 million users passing through its doors annually, TPL is acknowledging that its branches are also full of living, breathing people.

"With the Human Library, it's a one-on-one experience and that kind of storytelling, from person to person, does harken back to centuries and centuries ago when a story was the only way to learn," says Anne Marie Aikins, TPL's manager of corporate communications. "It's an old technology."

Considering the size of the system -- it's the world's largest public library -- and the diversity of people who use it, the TPL eschews a one-size-fits-all approach. (Or throwing large sums of money at things -- the Human Library project cost about $5,000). Each branch has an array of materials in languages that reflect the population of its neighbourhood. TPL's approach to providing resources for newcomers to Canada has been emulated by other libraries, says Aikins. Also, as part of its long-term renovation project, the library has been beefing up its KidsSpaces. No longer quaint book nooks, these child-friendly areas are all about interactivity.

"People think of libraries as places where you're shushed, which can be intimidating, but we work hard to make it welcoming," says Aikins.

This reluctance to shush might explain the "Make Some Noise" series, which partners the TPL with the Juno Awards to present live music in the stacks. It's a daunting task to make teenagers think of librarians as cool, but appearances by Jully Black and Buck 65 go a long way toward the hipness factor.

Considering that more than 77 percent of Canadians have Internet access at home, you'd figure the TPL is fighting a losing battle with the Internet. But TPL usage has been going up, year after year.

"People will be in their own world with their computer screen, but they like to have people around them, so they'll go into their branch," says Aikins. "If you're an online reader, you only have to come to the library once, to get a card and take out online books. But people keep coming back."

Aikins points out that the state-of-the-art and the tried-and-true can support each other.

"In our feedback from the Human Library event, we found that a good portion of users heard about it from social media," she says. "In the least personal, most mediated way, they found a way to have a very personal experience."

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

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