Bainbridge breathes life into the “Living Library”

When Aileen Griffey had finished with her library book, she didn’t close its cover or drop it in the return slot. She shook its hand, wished its family well and thanked it for a glimpse into what it’s like to be a Muslim living in America.

Griffey, “the reader,” and Younes Merbouhi, “the book,” were participants in Bainbridge Public Library’s Living Library event on Saturday. As one of about 50 readers who attended the event, Griffey chose from 17 flesh-and-blood titles representing groups that are often stereotyped, misunderstood or hold controversial viewpoints.

Before selecting Merbouhi and his family, which also joined in the discussion, Griffey perused a selection of living books representing a quadriplegic, a female cop, a Libertarian, a white South African, an atheist, the mother of a lesbian and an Eagle Harbor liveaboard.

Once a librarian matches a reader with book, they sit down for half-hour conversations at tables scattered throughout the library.

“This gives people a more diverse perspective,” said Danish anti-violence activist Ronni Abergel, who founded the Living Library program and was on-hand for the Bainbridge event. “Many people have perceptions about certain people based only on the media, but they’ve never sat down one, never really talked with one. Once they do, it stretches their boundaries.”

The idea for the Living Library is rooted in Abergel’s chance encounter with an angry man on a Copenhagen street.

“He wanted all Arabs to go home,” Abergel said. “But then this Arab guy walked by and he said ‘Hey Ali, how you doing?’ They were friends, and so I’m going ‘Hey,you just thrashed people like him.’ And he says ‘But that’s Ali. I know him. He’s OK.’”

With the idea that face-to-face interaction often breaks down negative stereotypes, Abergel created the Living Library program in Denmark eight years ago. Since then, over 25 countries – from Australia to Turkey – have hosted Living Libraries. The Bainbridge event was the second in the United States, with a Santa Monica, Calif. library sponsoring the first a week ago.

While similar events have tackled volatile subjects – such as neo-Nazism in Berlin – Abergel is cognizant of the fact that Bainbridge doesn’t face the same problems.

“Sure, Bainbridge is a safe community and the problems are not as severe, but you have gossip and judging others,” he said. “I’ve been here one day, and I’ve already heard about how people talk about the liveaboards and Californians, and how they come here with their money and ruin everything.”

Griffey and other Living Library participants said the three-hour event on Saturday was too short. They hope to see follow-up events at the library.

“This is fabulous,” Griffey said. “You get a quick slice of someone’s life. It’s casual, and (the topic) is not as controlled as it is in a book.”

After “checking out” the Merbouhi family, Griffey learned Younes met his wife Shauna in her home state of Oklahoma, where she was raised a Mormon. Shauna found that the trappings of Islam, including the headscarf she wears, drew less-than-friendly looks. Now living in Tacoma, Shauna feels more at ease, but not as comfortable as she feels in Morocco, where Younes is from.

“I felt really relaxed in Morocco because I fit right in,” she said.

Younes also discussed the vandalism that marred his Tulsa, Okla. mosque after 9/11. Griffey raised her eyebrows when Younes explained that it was the city’s devout Christians that offered help.

“That was heartening to me, but it wasn’t a surprise because they were living by the true tenants of Christianity,” he said.

The Marbouhis said the Living Library is as valuable to the “books” as it is to the “readers.”

“I feel really encouraged by this,” Younis said. “If we had more of this, and did this on a grander scale, it would solve so many of the problems we have.”

For more about the Living Library program, visit