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Williamstown Elementary School sixth-graders listen to a Human Library presentation Friday at Williams College.
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Books Come Alive at Williams College

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Local students 'read' a human book at the 3rd annual Human Library at Williams College that continues Saturday from 1 to 4 at the Paresky Center.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The eyes of 10-year-old Elianna Pow lit up when she heard one of the books she could check out Friday at Williams College.

The title of the book? "Man Who Has Never Watched TV."

The idea of someone who had never watched television did indeed appeal to the Lee student, who gasped "No!" when her mother, Jodi, said that she was thinking of getting rid of the family's cable box. But Elianna was especially interested in waiting to check out a different book, this one titled "Olympic Athlete."

"She just spent a lot of time watching the Olympics," Jodi Pow said.

These were no ordinary books, though: They were two of 60 "live" books that were part of the third Human Library event at Williams.

Founded in 2001 in Denmark to promote human rights and social cohesion, the Human Library consists of “books” that are actually volunteers a reader can "check out" for a half-hour conversation. In addition to "Man Who Has Never Watched TV" and "Olympic Athlete," the Williams library on Friday consisted of other "titles" like "Active Williamstown Native," "The Complex Life of a First Gen Student," "Draft Dodger/War Resister," "Gay College Student, "Mutahajebah (Veiled Woman)" and "Questionably Orthodox Jew."

The event continues Saturday, March 1, from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Paresky Center.

Jodi and Elianna Pow, who visited the Human Library on Friday with Patricia Moger, also of Lee, already had checked out "Questionably Orthodox Jew" while waiting for "Olympic Athlete" to be returned.

"She was great," Moger said. "I felt I had questions to ask I would feel funny asking."

Giving people an opportunity to learn more about different topics in an interactive way is the whole point of the Human Library experience, said Magnus Berhardsson, professor of Middle Eastern history at Williams and organizer of the event.

"This is a way for you to check out someone from a different place," said Berhardsson, who said the event has grown each year it has been held at Williams because the response has been "overwhelmingly, extraordinarily positive."

"We don't just learn from books. We can learn from each other," he said.

That educational aspect is what drew not only college students to the Paresky Center on Friday, but also local students from Mount Greylock Regional School as well as all three sixth-grade classes from Williamstown Elementary School, who braved the cold and wind to walk over to the college. One of the books some of the students checked out was "Off-cycle Tibetologist/Musician," also known as Williams senior Sarah Rosemann from Reno, Nev.

Rosemann said the sixth-graders had a funny reaction upon meeting her.

"They didn't really expect me to be the person they picked," she laughed, saying they told her they had expected a grizzly old man. That was in itself a lesson for the kids, she said.

"The title might be completely different from what they expect," she said.

In her case, her title referred to the fact that she took a year off from college (hence the "off-cycle") to go to Tibet (hence the Tibetologist) to study music in their culture (hence the musician, though she is also a musician herself, having played the viola since the age of 4).

"I talked a little about what it means to study another culture," she said.

For Rosemann, who was taking her first turn at playing a human book, the most surprising part of the experience was the conversations she had with her "readers," as the visitors were tagged at the event.

"I was expecting to have the same conversation every time," she said, especially since each title came with three questions to spark a conversation. But that didn't turn out to be the case, and that's what made the experience so interesting.

"Every conversation has been different," she said.

Tags: library,   Williams College,   

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