Canadian War Museum “Human Library”

Britt Braaten

Canadian War Museum

1 Vimy Place Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0M8

Ottawa, Canada
2012 Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Museums: History Alive! 

The Human Library at the Canadian War Museum

The Canadian War Museum (CWM) is Canada's national museum of military history. It acquires and maintains relevant artefacts in its unparalleled National Collection, and disseminates knowledge through research, exhibitions and public programs. Founded in 1880, the CWM moved in 2005 to its current location on the bank of the Ottawa River in the nation's capital. The CWM's mission is to promote public understanding of Canada's military history in its personal, national and international dimensions. The Human Library, a public program held at the CWM on January 28, 2012 and organized in partnership with the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), exemplifies excellence in CWM programming. The event was an unqualified success, and was recognized with awards from both the provincial and national museum associations.

In mid-2011, the CWM was looking for new and innovative programming ideas to support our upcoming temporary exhibition Peace - The Exhibition. The exhibition would present ways in which Canadians have acted for peace over time by examining twelve historical episodes. The exhibition would focus on the actions of individuals - as military personnel, activists, diplomats, humanitarians, and in countless other roles. The museum wanted visitors to come away from the exhibition with the understanding that, no matter what form the action took, Canadians throughout history have acted for peace with equal conviction and passion. It was in this context that the Program Planner learned about the Human Library.

The Human Library concept was first developed in 2000 at a Danish music festival, and has since spread around the world. Participants (called "Readers") choose from among a selection of volunteers (called "Human Books"), who share stories from their lives. A "Reader" checks-out a "Human Book" for a twenty minute, one-on-one conversation, just as they might check out a book from a library. The event breaks down barriers and reduces prejudice by providing space and structure for conversations between strangers. The exhibition team believed that the event would fit with the content and messages of Peace - The Exhibition.

As the museum began planning the event, it was discovered that the OPL and CBC were also in the early stages of organizing a Human Library, and a partnership was born. Around this time, the exhibition was postponed, so the CWM focus shifted from peace stories to stories of military history more generally. The CWM hosted nineteen "Human Books", including: a field engineer who cleared landmines in Bosnia, a member the Polish Resistance during the Second World War, an artist who painted Canadian military personnel in Afghanistan, a Somalian refugee who worked with Doctors without Borders, and a veteran of the Second World War.
Event planning was led by the Program Planner, who organized event logistics, selected the "Human Books" that would be available at the CWM, wrote short biographies of the "Human Books", and coordinated with the event partners. She relied on the advice and support of her colleagues on the Peace exhibition team throughout the planning process. On the day of the event, the Program Planner was assisted by front-line staff, event volunteers, a Communications Officer (media and social media), a dedicated Productions Coordinator (event logistics), and the nineteen "Human Books" who shared stories and answered questions about their experiences.

Feedback from "Readers" and "Human Books" revealed that the event was extremely meaningful for participants. It was also recognized by the Canadian and Ontario Museum Associations, winning the Canadian Museums Association's "History Alive!" award and the Ontario Museum Association's Community Engagement award.

Although this was not the first Human Library event, holding it in a museum, as opposed to typical venues like libraries and festivals, changed the nature of the event. The museum is recognized by the public as a place of authority. This gives great meaning to the very act of inviting in community members to talk about their lives, effectively telling them that their experiences are significant and worth telling. Sharing authority, which may be a normal practice at a library or community festival, is unusual and noteworthy in the context of a national museum.
The Human Library also helps extend the museum's content to the present-day. The permanent galleries at the CWM begin with conflicts between the First Peoples 5,000 years ago, and effectively end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, with the most space devoted to the First and Second World Wars. By having "Human Books" with experiences that took place after the end of the permanent gallery content alongside "Human Books" from events included in the galleries, the Human Library helps visitors understand these more recent conflicts as part of Canadian military history. Given the time and expense involved in updating the permanent galleries, this program performs a valuable service by bringing new stories into the museum and helping visitors see the museum as relevant to more contemporary issues as well as past events.
The main challenge for the CWM came from the different perspectives and goals of the event partners. For example, the CWM decided that the "Human Books" at its location should relate to Canadian military history, while the OPL and CBC had no similar content restrictions and viewed the "Human Books" as interchangeable. In the end, this difference was recognized by all parties, and it was agreed that the institutions would host separate Human Libraries going forward. The OPL and CBC hosted their second Human Library on January 26, 2013, and the CWM hosted its second Human Library on June 9, 2013. All parties are looking forward to running Human Library events in 2014.
Based on the lessons learned from 2012, changes to the 2013 Human Library included:
•    Selecting "Human Books" to speak about an exhibition-linked theme (Peace Stories);
•    Paying more attention to the diversity represented by the selection of "Human Books" in terms of gender, age, ethno-cultural groups, sexual orientation and life experience;
•    Increasing the number of "Human Books" and the hours of the event;
•    Providing "Readers" with questions to help them start the conversation; and
•    Adjusting the content of the "Human Book" orientation to include more practical tips and tricks, as well as practice time.
The Human Library can be adapted to museums around the world with very positive results for the institution, the participants, and the local community. Three recommendations for institutions considering hosting their own Human Library, based on experiences at the CWM in 2012 and 2013:
  1. Do not reinvent the wheel - the basic premise and structure of the event are sound;
  2. Meet with all the "Human Books" in-person before the event to gauge their suitability. This is time-consuming, but the event will be stronger for it; and
  3. Take steps to maximize the diversity (age, gender, race, etc.) of the "Human Books"
The CWM has made the Human Library part of its annual programming calendar, and other museums that do so will see its ability to bring about meaningful community engagement.



Browse by year

Browse by category

Browse by country

View all