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Reflections on running a Living Library

Morag Evans, Librarian, shares her reflections on organising the first Living Library at Dorset County Hospital.

The concept of a Living Library is not new. The first-ever Living Library (Menneske Biblioteket in Danish) was organized in Denmark in 2000 at the Roskilde Festival. The original idea had been developed by a Danish Youth Non-Government Organisation (NGO) called ‘Stop the Violence’ (Foreningen Stop Volden) as part of the activities they offered to festival goers. The aim of a Living Library is to challenge stereotypes, stigma, prejudice and discrimination. Please read more at

A living library works just like a normal library: visitors can browse the catalogue for the available titles, choose the Book they want to read and borrow it for a limited period of time. The only difference is that in a Living Library, Books are people and reading consists of a conversation.

Having conducted some research into how other Trusts and organisations had organised their Living Libraries I decided to run one at Dorset County Hospital Foundation Trust (DCHFT) where I work as a librarian.

The aim of DCHFT’s Living Library was to create a safe space for constructive personal conversations to take place between people who may not normally have had the opportunity to speak to each other.

It was hoped it would offer an opportunity to learn and understand better the diversity of roles and experiences of Trust staff and students and help to challenge some common stereotypes and prejudices.

The DCHFT Living Library’s objectives were to:

•           Promote understanding and clarity around the work that people at DCH do;

•           Provide an interactive experience that engages those who work at DCH;

•           Promote respect across the Trust;

•           Challenge common stereotypes and prejudice about experiences staff face;

Having recently completed a Project Management Lite course run by the Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) I attempted to run the Living Library as a ‘project’ and this approach worked well.

As a project the Living Library did have a beginning and end but I had to think carefully about scope. The Project Sponsor was the chair of the hospital’s network for staff with disabilities, now called “The Without Limits” Staff Network. I produced a simple Gantt chart of the various activities, timescales and people involved.

I also had a marketing plan for the Living Library – how I was going to promote it and ‘sell’ the idea. The concept was advertised in the Communications bulletin which goes to all staff and an invitation to volunteer to be a Book was extended to all staff.

Ideally, we wanted about ten Books to start with. This was the easy part – ten enthusiastic “Books” were recruited quite quickly and I met with them to describe how the Living Library was going to work. Initially we planned to hold it in the hospital restaurant like a ‘speed dating’ event in November 2021. I asked the Books to write a short ‘blurb’ about their ‘story’ and to choose a picture or image which could go on the front of their Book. This was then added to the Living Library “catalogue” which I prepared in print and electronically on Padlet. This was then advertised and promoted in the staff bulletin and on posters.

Unfortunately, I contracted Covid two weeks before the event and we had to postpone the Living Library.

Meanwhile, talk about the Living Library had caught the attention of the Inclusion Lead and the Chief People Officer who both expressed an interest in the concept and encouraged me to run the Living Library in April but have it as a week-long event to allow time for people to “take out” their chosen Book. I thought this was a great idea. So we planned to have a week long Living Library during the week of
4th-8th April. Instead of one event we invited people to contact directly the Book they had chosen, to meet at a date and time which suited them both.

To say the Living Library was a “huge success” would be an overstatement. Only a few of our lovely Books were “read” as the week we chose turned out to be one of the busiest of the year. However, the feedback we received about the Living Library was very positive, especially from the people who volunteered to be Books, for example:

“I often tell people parts of my…story and talk a little about my experience as a carer, but it is not often these days that I have an in depth conversation about all that happened. I found it therapeutic…I met the [Chief People Officer] and one of the things that we discussed was the support that is available for carers at DCH – I hope that I can be involved in improving care for carers.”

“A very open and honest discussion with a great person.”

However, less positive feedback was around lack of information and promotion of the living library, for example:

“I am still awaiting to meet with my reader. I think the idea is fabulous; it is disappointing there has been little update on this – may be due to hospital pressures.”

The lessons I have learned from running a Living Library have been numerous. I have learnt how to use Padlet, loved meeting new people and enjoyed running a project from start to finish. The Inclusion Lead has recommended that the Books are available on a “Living Catalogue” and that we run the Living Library maybe two or three times a year to fully embed it within the Trust and with the Books’ permission this is what we are intending to do.

I have found that the best thing about running a Living Library is listening to, learning about and facilitating the sharing of different people’s stories – they are all inspiring and I thank them for their enthusiasm for and dedication to the first Living Library at Dorset County Hospital.

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