BRUNSWICK – Stephanie Rayner is a human book. She’s an artistic story told in painted images that start in Toronto and travel through time.

Helen Watts is a book, too, but this tale is one of science and engineering. She could be checked out along with Brunswick psychologist James Weaver and singer/songwriter Kate Miller at Curtis Memorial.

This special collection of “human books” circulated throughout the library’s fourth annual How To Festival and Block Party on Sept. 16.

The rules are a little different for borrowing people. You couldn’t, for example, take one home. You could, however, ask them anything you want about their area of expertise for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

Rayner brought the idea of human books with her when she moved to Brunswick from Toronto last summer. “What I saw in Toronto was this beautiful jet-black woman in swirls of colored fabric talking to a 10-year-old boy with eyes as big as saucers. She was ‘I Am Africa.’ He was this little white kid who got to sit down and have a deep conversation — not a tweet. That is a conversation he’ll never forget. It will inform him on many levels for the rest of his life,” she said.

A world traveler and sculptor, the book of “Stephanie Rayner” was about time travel.

“Back in time seemed richer to me,” she said of the 10 years she spent criss-crossing the globe among nomads and natives. “Readers” could point to a spot in an atlas at the How To Festival, and Rayner would tell a story about her time there.

Meanwhile, Kate Miller answered questions about writing songs and about building a tiny home, something she recently accomplished because she “wanted a place for her songs to live.” Dr. Weaver fielded questions like “what does a psychologist do”?

But it’s up to the book to decide what he or she will answer.

“In Toronto,” Rayner explained, “There were ex drug dealers as books, and ex prostitutes and ex heroin addicts, so you can imagine there are some questions that couldn’t be answered.”
Libraries in bigger cities go back and forth between the really tough, exotic and fun, she said, but what she pitched to Curtis wasn’t that heavy. At the same time, she didn’t want to do “Human Books Lite.”

“Everyone I chose was a two-fer. Kate is a singer-songwriter, who also built a tiny home. Helen is an engineer and a woman in Maine. They could talk about many different experiences,” she said.

Singer-songwriter and Human Book Kate Miller looks forward to talking about her experience building a tiny house. Raye Leonard - Coastal Journal

Hazel Onsrud, adult services librarian at Curtis, was full of enthusiasm about Rayner’s human books. “Our mission really is to encourage the exchange of ideas and build community,” she said. The women decided to introduce the concept at the larger How To Festival event.

“Stephanie proposed a ‘How to Check Out a Human Book’ booth for the festival. Just like all the other booths, it was a community effort that made it possible,” Onsrud said, adding “this table was really exceptional because people were willing to share their experiences”

Adult Services Librarian Hazel Onsrud. Raye Leonard - Coastal JournaL

In what might be called the trouble with Twitter and other online platforms that deliver information to a digital nation, books – and libraries – compete to serve the knowledge needs of patrons. Hoping to be more than book depositories at the least and museums to the printed word at best, libraries now loan out everything from telescopes to toys. With a Curtis library card, you can borrow all sorts of gadgets, everything from an e-reader to an electricity usage monitor.

Why not people?

“Until you try, you don’t know if it will work,” Onsrud said, but Curtis has no plans at the moment to add human books to its interactive stacks.

The official Human Library Project was started in 2000 by a youth organization in Denmark called “Stop the Violence. “ The idea was that by connecting “readers” with “stories” told by real people who self-select their area of expertise, understanding and empathy could be built among people with diverse interests and backgrounds.

Brunswick psychologist James Weaver is one of the Human Books you can “check out” at the How To Festival. Raye Leonard - Coastal Journal

The project has grown to include communities all over the world. The website for the Human Library Project lists “books” that cover subjects like what’s it like to be homeless, a young single mom, or to convert to Islam, or cover your body in piercings and tattoos.

As a structural engineer, teacher, and Girl Scout leader, Watts said, “People have heard me. My KVCC students get Helen Watts for 80 minutes. I’ve done so much public speaking. But there are people whose voices are not ever really heard. The person who checks out the book learns something they might not have understood before, and the book gets to tell their story.”

For more information about human books, email Stephanie Rayner at [email protected]. To learn more about the Human Library Project, visit www.humanlibrary.org.