09/05/2017 07:53 BST | Updated 03/10/2017 07:24 BST

What I Learned At The Human Library

The Human Library was the brainchild of Ronni Abergel, his brother Dany, and friends Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsen. It started life as an event at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark back in 2000, the intention being to promote dialogue among people from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and lifestyles, and help them recognise what they had in common rather than what set them apart.

Seventeen years on and there are 'books' and 'libraries' in 84 countries. In the UK it was first pioneered in Norwich, and has now teamed up with Heineken and their 'Open Your World' campaign in order to take The Human Library to events across the UK, including the Wilderness Festival in August.

So what is The Human Library? Essentially, people volunteer to become 'books' and put themselves on loan to 'readers', who sit down with them face-to-face and are free to ask anything at all about their lives. So if someone homeless or a refugee offers to become a 'book' in the library, a reader can quiz them on what it's like to be in that situation without the usual social prohibitions applying. One thing you'll never be told is to mind your own business.

the human library

I discovered what it was all about when I was invited to The Library Club in London's Covent Garden. The event began with Heineken's Worlds Apart film, a social experiment in which strangers divided by their beliefs are brought together to see if they can overcome their differences.

"What we wanted to get across in the film," says Nic Casby, Heineken's representative, "is that when you find common ground, when you find something that connects you, you open up. Even people with extremely different backgrounds can find there's more that unites than divides them."

After the film, Ronni Abergel introduces us to The Human Library. "Let me run through the topics available for loan," he says. "There is cerebral palsy, pansexual, lesbian, East European immigrant, extreme body modifier..." The list goes on, with over a dozen people making themselves available as books. "This transcends social norms. But don't be shy. These people have volunteered to answer your questions and they are eager to talk about their experiences."

My first book is Terry, a man in his mid-thirties who used to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. To begin with it's a little surreal to sit with a total stranger and begin throwing very direct questions at them about their personal life - even for a journalist used to conducting interviews.

But Terry is completely unfazed and answers honestly and comprehensively. I consequently discover that his condition began to manifest itself when he was 19 years old, despite having been a cheerful, sporty guy. He became increasingly paranoid and suspicious of people, believing they could hear his thoughts.

"I was terrified all the time," he says. But like the overwhelming majority of paranoid schizophrenics, he wasn't a danger to anyone but himself, and things got so bad that when he was 20 he tried to commit suicide. "I hope that The Human Library challenges stigma," he says. "I help other people with schizophrenia now, and you have to understand that the stereotype to do with this condition increases the stigma, and when people with schizophrenia are confronted with this stereotype - that they're freaks of society - this can have a negative effect on the condition and their sense of being outcasts."

After chatting for half an hour, I thank Terry and go in search of another book.

Admir is a Roma, a nomadic ethnic group now found throughout Europe, that is still subject to enormous prejudice in both the UK and elsewhere. "Have you heard any positive stories about Roma in the media?" he says. I struggle to think of any. "If you just read the negative things you cannot see the human," he continues. "People from all kinds of backgrounds, religions, creeds and colours want to be books in The Human Library so readers get a clearer picture of who they are."

Admir lives in Copenhagen and has been part of The Human Library for ten years. He tells me that the Romani people first came out of northern India, that their language is split into dozens of dialects that reflect their migration across Europe and north Africa, that they can be Muslim, Christian, Jewish or even retain Hindu beliefs.

Admir encourages other Danish Roma to be more forthcoming about who they are, to talk about - and be proud of - their history and traditions. "There are around 15,000 Romani people in Denmark but maybe only 100 of them are willing to say they are Roma to outsiders," he says. "The thing is to be open, don't be afraid."

the human library

When I eventually left The Human Library I was buoyed up on an emotion that seems pretty thin on the ground at the moment - optimism.

At a time when Brexit and Trump have created fracture and division, when the political line is changing in Europe, when much of the media irresponsibly employs 'with us or against us' rhetoric in the face of complex social questions, and where the internet exacerbates these issues with echo chambers, fake news and trolling, The Human Library is a timely and necessary reality check.

In a very practical way, it shows us that if we make the effort to listen to and understand people, we quickly begin to see beyond our own world and the fact we are united in more ways than simply being human. This is a truth as old as we are, and it's one The Human Library reminds us of again and again.

The Human Library is currently working with Heineken in the UK to inspire everyone to celebrate diversity, open their world and focus on what unites us, not what divides us.

As part of that, a series of Heineken events this summer will give people the chance to loan out one of The Human Library's unique 'books' for the evening. Sign up here