The Human Library at the Harmony Games

We are often told, you don’t judge a book by its cover, a reminder that we should not form an opinion of someone by what’s seen on the surface.

At the Human Library, people literally become books to be “read”! A concept originating from Denmark, the Human Library is a combination of two components. Firstly, real physical books stocked at Human Library depots and secondly, the human who serves to be the personification of the book telling its story.

Photo above: A human library in action in Denmark.

This unique library has arrived in Singapore and was part of the Harmony Games. Our President, Tatt Si, has volunteered to be a “book” himself. Here, we have a captivated crowd “reading” Tatt Si’s 100,000-year odyssey. Hopefully, they did not judge him too much by the cover!

As we know, Singapore is a multiracial, multi-religious state and efforts must be made to connect different communities together.

The Harmony Games, into its 10th year, does exactly just that. It brings together people of different races and faiths to participate in a series of games and activities, forging ties and dismantling social barriers between people of different communities.

The Human Library is thus, in this writer’s opinion, perfect for the Harmony Games. To connect different religious communities together, no method works better than the power of personal stories.

Tatt Si’s participation is all the more special because, for the first time, the Harmony Games has invited a representative with a non-religious perspective.

So, what’s Tatt Si’s story?

Tatt Si (above) started by telling the story of his medical report. Having just turned 52 the day before, his enthusiasm was effusive.

The report wasn’t about his heart, BP, blood sugar, nor his prostate. It was about his ancestry. The DNA medical report that Tatt Si had in his hands, was one that was done in the year 2009, in conjunction with National Geographic “A Human Journey” project, working with Harvard University’s Dr. Spencer Wells, using IBM’s AGCT proteins crunching computers.

Above: National Geographic’s map of human migration

It was clearly easy for Tatt Si to assume the role of an African man who was 100,000 years old, with the DNA report supplementing the different places he had traveled to and dwelled in. The gist of the story:

  1. While he looked Chinese today, he was really African some 100,000 years ago.
  2. He and his family walked out of Africa, through the land bridge in Sinai and possibly the Red Sea. There were no maps.
  3. He dwelled at different places for different stretches, in the Middle-East, in Central Asia, in Northern China, and the last 500 years, in Southern China and Southeast Asia.
  4. His cousins’ families who left Africa at different times, when they met up with Tatt Si, filled him up with stories (histories) that they experienced, many of which are found in libraries like the one in Beatty Secondary.
  5. He’s seen different cultures and he’s survived different wars, and wars often fought along cultural, racial and religious lines.
  6. Looking ahead, he envisioned where humankind can head.

It was not a one-sided story telling session, and Human Library formats are generally very interactive. Tatt Si asked the audience questions along the way, in the non-threatening format of trivia, engaging different people in the audience. There was a contingent that was from a visiting Italian school, and one student was able to name the similar Human Genome work done by their compatriot anthropologist from Italy.

The tail end of the storytelling session, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu (above, left) turned up, and the story turned into a human aspiration story. The audience was quizzed on Evolution and Space Travel. There was not a dull moment in the 40-minute session.

HumanistSG feels that the Human Library has a lot of room to grow, as the format suits the interactive learning of humanities and sciences. We will begin looking at finding storytellers, to be able to run the Human Library by ourselves in time to come.