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The Living Library

A non formal activity for 14-18 year-olds, with the slogan “don’t judge a book by its cover"
Valongo / Portugal
Size of city: 
93 858 inhabitants


Marta Daniela Costa
Division of Education, Social Action and Sports, Valongo Town Hall
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The Living Library is an informal activity set up in Valongo (PT) for students from 14 to 18 years of age, with the slogan “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. The organisers took the concept of the Living Library held at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000, and adapted it for a school audience. It allows an informal and constructive dialogue between students and ‘Human Books’ – volunteers who are frequently the recipients of prejudices and stereotypes.
The Living Library also creates the opportunity to promote an interpersonal relationship between groups that are usually not able to interact. It enables participants to challenge their own stereotypes and prejudices in a structured, protected environment, and in a limited time. More than 4,200 young people have taken part since Valongo’s Living Library was launched in 2010, and the project has been extended to six schools.

The solutions offered by the good practice

The physical space is decorated just like a normal library. In the project there is an element of itinerancy, as it visits the different schools. Before the implementation of the activity, a meeting with a teacher takes place. During this meeting the necessary steps to prepare the activity in each class are explained.
Afterwards, each teacher debates with the class the goals of the Living Library and prepares in advance some questions to present to the books. This ensures that the youngsters do not become blocked during the interaction with the Human Books. At the same time, NGOs are contacted and partnerships are made. These NGOs identify Human Books, volunteers who will participate in the project and will assume a stereotype. The Human Books should have personal experience, as well as technical and scientific preparation so that they are able to challenge stereotypes.
To help them in this process, the municipality trains them and helps them to anticipate difficulties, problems, and how to face challenges. On the day the activity takes place, different Human Books are available to be read. There is a librarian who creates four sub-groups in each class, gives out the instructions, and makes sure the activity is evaluated. Each group talks to the Human Book, posing questions for about 20 minutes. When this period of time ends, the groups exchange Human Books and restart reading them. This process continues until every group has made contact with all the books.

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Those of us who attempt to initiate programmes that promote intercultural dialogue are frequently faced with the challenge of coming up with something innovative. We are constantly looking for something that can attract the attention of many and make a real difference to those involved.
The Living Library is an innovative approach to equality and diversity because it addresses the broad subject of prejudice without emphasising one specific case over others. At the same time, it manages to successfully navigate around some of the sensitivities that accompany anti-prejudice work, while maintaining an element of fun and interaction that makes the project immensely appealing to both potential organisers and participants.
The Living Library, implemented since 2010, is a way to help young people reflect about the world, equality and interculturality. It is also an excellent opportunity to deconstruct stereotypes, to develop self-awareness about the importance of cultural diversity, interculturality, plural democracy and human rights. It also allows the sharing of life stories and experiences, the aids to the fight of multiple discrimination and sensitises youngsters to the importance of social diversity and human rights.

Based on a participatory approach

The Living Library is a project that was strongly supported by the National Mechanism for Immigration. It is only possible because of the participation of different stakeholders: schools, NGOs (ACAPO – blind and nearsighted people; Associação Luso-Africana Pontos Nos Is – immigrants; ILGA – gay, lesbian, transgender people; MEDesTu – intercultural and interreligious; Liga Portuguesa Contra o Cancro – cancer survivors; Centro Hospitalar S. João – hospital that cooperates with us to identify people with mental disease; AMI – poverty and homeless volunteers, as well as volunteers who are able to share the importance of human rights to the fabric of our democracies and the responsibility of the individual citizen in realising abstract human rights in his or her everyday life.
This is achieved by creating a safe environment for Readers and Books to engage in open dialogue whose explicit aim is to discuss topics that in almost any other setting would be considered too delicate. At the Living Library these discussions are possible, indeed, they are surprisingly easy. Becoming one half of that exchange is a rare privilege and one that leaves no one who experiences it unaffected.

What difference has it made?

Some of the results of the project are:

  • Sensitisation and raising awareness regarding different issues that indirectly contribute to the increase of intercultural competence;
  • The creation of opportunities as well as of non-traditional ways of fostering intercultural discussion and how to challenge stereotypes;
  • The dissemination of the potential, difficulties and culture of migrant communities among non-traditional target audiences and different age groups;
  • The promotion of dialogue between different actors of organised and non-organised civil society in Valongo;
  • The deconstruction of stereotypes regarding ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc;
  • The promotion of interculturality issues in the local community, especially through media;
  • The high level of satisfaction of participants in qualitative questionnaires (the average results vary between 4.9 and 5 on a scale of up to 5 points, in which 1 is the lowest and 5 the highest);
  • School communities consider the Living Library one of the most interesting activities implemented in schools. Other quantitative results are:
  • Six schools were involved in 2010 and eight in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016;
  • More than 10 volunteers were present at each Living Library edition;
  • Since 2010 more than 4,200 youngsters have participated in the project.
Why should other European cities use it?

This programme has been recognised for its efforts to address discrimination by breaking down stereotypes and promoting interculturality. What began as a project of three schools and 150 students has now spread to six schools, more than 800 students each year and engages at least 10 volunteers – an impressive record in this small city and new immigrant gateway. The Living Library has been recognised by the National Mechanism for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue as a best practice and is being replicated across Portugal in cooperation with NGOs such as Pontos Nos Is and Amizade de Leste. The methodology was also recognised as a good practice by the following entities:

  • Inclusion of the Living library in the European Web Site on Integration – 2013, a European Commission initiative that targets people who work in the integration field and promotes the exchange of good practices;
  • Inclusion of the Living Library in the booklet of Good Practices in the Porto Metropolitan Area – 2013, a document that gathers good practices identified as innovative and socially entrepreneuring;
  • Recognition as a good practice by the International Association of Education Cities at the congress that took place in Rosario, Argentina, in 2016. Transferability, easy implementation and low budget are some of the reasons why it has been considered a good practice by many institutions.