There was a box of tissues on the table, and at a certain point, Mia Marangoz* needed them.
Many of the things she shared with the small group gathered to hear her story weren’t things she typically reveals about herself. Like how she, the daughter of a white American mother and a devout Muslim Iraqi father, has complicated feelings about her own faith; how she’s seriously questioning whether she wants to wear a head scarf anymore; and the pain that comes from feeling like the latter is non-negotiable, at least while she’s still living at home.
“I’ve spoken to a few close friends about those things, but it was great to get views from people I didn’t really know,” she said. “People responded with a lot of validation. One person even shared his own struggles with religion. So it’s a reminder that my story is not abnormal or wrong, and that the more you talk with people, the more you realize you’re not alone.”
It was exactly the type of conversation organizers at the Mardigian Library were hoping to see at their Living Library pilot event last month. In all, a dozen UM-Dearborn faculty, staff and students volunteered to be “living books”—each sharing personal stories and engaging with small groups of “readers” in thoughtful conversations.
For example, Professor Line Van Nieuwstadt shared her experience being one of only a few women on the NASA team that launched the Sojourner Mars rover—a “book” which attracted two young women engineering students as readers. In another session, the Office of Student Engagement’s Diversity Coordinator, Jo’El Williams, reflected on the process of embracing his fluid sexual identity. And Khodr Farhat, who is visually impaired, offered listeners a story titled, Reaching for the stars I cannot see.
“We have a lot of diversity here, but since we are mostly a commuter campus, I don’t think we get to know people with other viewpoints as much as you might expect,” said Barbara Kriigel, Mardigian Library's interim director. “So I think having opportunities like this—where the intention is to have a conversation that goes to a deeper place—is something we can do more of.”
Co-organizer Joan Martin, who is a librarian for the College of Business, observed that many of the conversations between strangers did, in fact, get deep rather quickly. She noticed, for example, there were also tears at the table headed by LEO Lecturer Dave Law, who shared his personal journey toward pacifism after being a soldier in the Vietnam War.
“One of the most incredible things is how quickly and easily people connected,” Martin said. “Both the ‘books’ and ‘readers’ spent very little time on introductions. I think there was a level of trust there because readers chose specific books. And if they chose you, there was something about your story that they felt drawn to.”
Martin said other libraries across the country hold similar events, but it’s the first time one has been hosted at UM-Dearborn. Given the feedback she’s received so far—both from readers and from storytellers who want to be in on the next event—she says she’ll look ahead to planning a second act soon.
“Everyone has told me that we’re doing this again,” Martin said, smiling. “So I’m not sure I have much of a choice.”
*An alias has been used to protect this student’s identity.