Another fine edition of our human books: Living Library

Gerry. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Another fine edition of our human books: Living Library #GRWeek18
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
17 September 2018

As part of Good Relations Week 2018, Belfast City Council hosted its seventh annual Living Library event, where public visitors come in to borrow a “human book” — a person who sits across from you in a one-to-one storytelling session.

The event organiser, Leish Dolan (Good Relations Officer, Belfast City Council), told us that this series began after coming across The Human Library organisation, by chance. With colleague Anne Deighan, they used their existing contacts and established the first Living Library in 2011; some of these “first edition” books were available at today’s event — serial storytellers, one could say.

The Living Library event provides a rewarding opportunity to hear from perspectives that you may not come across in daily life, and to learn from one’s personal experience and not a us-versus-them conflict narrative.

From the broad selection of twelve books on offer today, I chose ones with stories of nonconformity, acceptance, reaching out to the other, and adaptation.

More specifically, Linda Ervine told me her story of how a cross-community taster session in the Irish language evolved to the continued interest within the unionist community, as well as criticism from the same (“swimming against the tide”). We conversed about how Gaelic became weaponised in Northern Ireland and why it need not be.

Anna Lo told me her story of being “the odd one out”, from both within the Chinese community and beyond. Yet she explained how she overcame others’ ignorance and stereotypes to become a “trusted bridge”, providing practical information through her work at the Chinese Welfare Association and highlighting important issues during her tenure as the first ever ethnic minority MLA at the Northern Ireland Assembly. (If you want to learn more, you can buy a real book, her autobiography, The Place I Call Home.)

Alan McBride told me his wonderful story about how his future book will be titled, No More Smoked Salmon. He retains his loyalist, working class roots, and is determined to include the voices of many others in his story. You can read some of these now at a Wave Trauma project, Stories from Silence; a fourth series is planned.

Trevor told me that when he joined the Ulster Defence Association as a teenager, he knew it would end in one of two ways — in jail or dead. So when he was arrested and sent to jail, he was partly ready for it; he told me that other young men thought that they would never be caught and they didn’t cope so well. Trevor supports the peace process but despairs at the lack of progress 20 years on. His story has a theme of pragmatism that has helped him and those he works with — within and across his community — build peace at interface areas.

Gerry, a former INLA member and prisoner, explained to me his distinction between the words “regret” and “sorry”: regret is usually selfish, first-person (“I regret my comrade got killed”), while he doesn’t expect anyone to apologise for their beliefs. Indeed, his involvement in working with loyalist former prisoners didn’t start altruistically: “I was asked by [a loyalist] if I wanted to attend a workshop event that he was going to. I said to myself, ‘If he’s going, I’m sure as heck going to tell my side of the story.’” This led to working with victims and survivors groups, which has been powerful but also revealed a bias by some peacebuilding facilitators who don’t consider the psychological impact of former protagonists being asked to open up emotionally.

Afterwards, Dolan provided me with more details about the background of this project, as part of the city’s DiverseCity programme, which she said was well supported by the councillors. Dolan said that there will be another Living Library event next year, and invites anyone who wants to learn more to contact the Good Relations Office directly (phone: (028) 9027 0663; email:


The Living Library experience is a positive one, with fine quality “books” — storytellers who make you feel comfortable saying as much or little as you wish. There’s much that is learned in short, rich chapters. I’m looking forward to the next edition.


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