Your person's overdue

A major new development in library lending strategies in The Netherlands – it’s taken its lead from a similar project first heralded in Sweden. It might be an interesting way to increase tolerance and understanding of ‘other’ cultures .. but maybe it only works in those countries that have a strong tradition of liberalism and social democratic style of governments….

By Guardian Unlimited / Arts and culture 09:44am

A trip to the library these days is nothing like those of our youth. Instead of reading rooms, there are internet terminals, writes Rosalind Ryan. Rather than being told to “Ssh!” you are more likely to be encouraged to join a story-telling session. And rather than borrowing boring old books, you can now borrow people.

In the true liberal spirit of the Netherlands, the library in the eastern town of Almelo has just launched a scheme to “lend” real people to members of the public. You can now book 45 minutes with gay men and women, “non-criminal” drug addicts, disabled people, asylum seekers or Gypsies.

Jan Krol, the director of the library, launched the project in an effort to combat prejudice and says he “stole” the idea from a similar scheme in Malmo, Sweden. Members of the “living library” will answer questions about their beliefs or lifestyles in order to help the public confront their own fears.

“We want to help people learn about all sorts of minority groups,” Mr Krol said. “We even have a politician people can borrow.”

The most popular request the library is currently receiving receives at the moment is for a gay Turkish man, but Mr Krol emphatically denies running a covert dating agency.

“He has been booked by two Islamic primary schools for lessons about sexuality,” he said. “Homosexuality is a really big taboo in that community, so I think he will become the first big success story for the scheme.”

The living library will be fully operational by the end of September, and Mr Krol plans to have photographs and a short profile of all the volunteers on the website in order to allow the public to book online.

However, international borrowers will not be able to make use of the service.

“You can’t take people on loan out of the library,” Mr Krol explained. “All the meetings take place in the cafe for safety reasons. If the conversations turn nasty or insulting, we can stop them.”

And if Mr Krol uses the living library, he says he wants talk to someone who has lived in real poverty. “I want to ask them how they cope living on social security benefit, which is so low in this country. I could probably do it for a month, but how do they do it for years?”

And has he had any bookings from people wanting to learn about librarians? “No one has asked to take me out,” he said. “I’m rather disappointed.”