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Fancy borrowing a homeless person?

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 14 October 2005

Recently, I read that it will soon be possible to 'borrow' living people from a public library in Holland. The library, based in the town of Almelo, will 'lend out' people of various descriptions, including drug addicts, physically-disabled people, homosexuals, asylum seekers and Roma gypsies. The idea is that you can reserve a person and meet them for 45 minutes, asking them anything you want and hearing their story. Jan Krol, the library's director running the programme, hopes it will reduce prejudice and break down barriers between groups as people learn more about the lifestyles of others. Moreover, for those of you worried you might forget to return 'your book', or perhaps 'your book' might have such a good time with you it forgets to return itself, resulting in a hefty fine, you can only meet the person in the library café for safety reasons. Also, in case you are wondering, Krol says you do not have to have a library card to take out a person.

Krol, who based the scheme on a project running in Sweden, is swamped with requests and has had to get his team of 'living books' together hastily. He told London's Telegraph, “I've got several gay men, a couple of lesbian women, a couple of Islamic volunteers. I've got a physically-handicapped woman and a woman who has been living on social-security benefits for many years in real poverty.”

Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Any so-called oddity you have been too afraid to approach in the street or strike up a conversation with at work is now freely available for questions and answers. Libraries have a reputation for being stuffy boring places and maybe this is just the thing to bring people back to books (or at least to library cafés). It is an indictment of our society that we are too busy to talk to one another and have to visit a human zoo to learn about each another; but, if the scheme promotes libraries as institutions that are part of communities, I'm all for it. Finding ways to bring people into the library, whether with a library card in hand or a camera to take a snap of the exotic person they're meeting, can only be positive. Obviously, in Africa, literacy and the availability of books is also a problem, even if you manage to steer the person away from their meeting into the actual library. The general anti-book culture the world over is another hurdle. Recently, I read that Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, has never read a book in her life, despite writing a 528-page biography. Some role model there.

In addition, as sympathetic as I am towards Krol's scheme (which I know I've spent too much time thinking about, instead of reading, a good book), it does throw up several questions, such as: who is really taking out who? Who is more of a curiosity, a drug addict or a person who feels they are so deprived of chances to meet people from all walks of life that they need a library to facilitate the meeting? Also, are only minorities available for loan and does the inquisitiveness only flow one way? Can a liberal-minded person ask to meet a right-wing bigot? Can a poor black man ask to meet a middle-class white man? And, the biggest question: can you ask that certain people be removed from society and made available only on loan for all eternity? I have a few politicians in mind here.

But I'm hooked and I'm going to sign up. I've been wracking my brain all day trying to decide who I will take out on loan. And, finally, I've got it. I wonder if you can borrow a Dutch librarian; I've never met one of those before.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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