Check out living books to hear their stories

Human Library Project started in Denmark

When auctioneer, antique dealer and art historian Alison Ross presents herself as a living book, she cautions against making judgments based on the cover.

"I do get asked every once in a while, 'What's a nice girl like you doing in the auction business?' " said Ross, owner of Kilshaw's Auctioneers on Fort Street.

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"There aren't a lot of short blonds doing this."

On Saturday afternoon, Ross will appear as one of several living volumes at the Greater Victoria Public Library and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the Human Library Project.

It's a chance for people to "check out" people from various streams of life, and talk with them for 20 minutes about their lives.

Other "living books" include a municipal planner, a police officer, a Buddhist nun, a singer/songwriter and a homeless person.

The Human Library Project began in Denmark in 2000, but has since spread around the world.

"It was first developed as a way of bringing people together and to break down prejudices," said Jennifer Rowan, co-ordinator of adult services and programs for the Greater Victoria Public Library.

"It's really a way of bringing people together, encouraging dialogue."

And what people might find out in the 20-minute chats with living books may be surprising.

Ross, for example, stars as a pawn master on the History Television show Pawnathon Canada.

But she is not a pawnbroker, lending out money to people who post objects as collateral.

Instead, Ross acts as an auctioneer selling items for people to earn a commission.

Ross said auctioneering is a business dominated by men, where she has to be willing to heft furniture and move boxes.

But Ross also has a master's degree in art history, specializing in Northwest Coast art.

She taught art history at the University of Victoria at the age of 21. And she started as an employee at Kilshaw's in 1997 and worked there 10 years before she took over the business.

She also has a collection of snuff boxes.

It's this revelation of an individual's multiple layers - their experiences, likes, dislikes and little obsessions - that drew the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to the Human Library Project.

Tania Muir, gallery educator, said the gallery's Season of Portraits exhibitions was a good match.

Muir said when we meet people, we try to learn details that give us a picture of their identity. Similarly, an artist will look for details that reveal more than mere likeness in creating a portrait.

For example, Muir said one Toronto artist exhibiting at the gallery used photographic images of items contained in her father's wallet to make a portrait.

So items like family photos, a driver's licence, even a letter of permission to hunt on a particular property, became part of her father's portrait.

Meanwhile, in the Human Library, people can ask questions to develop a truer picture of the participants' identities.

"Artists, through their practice, or us as individuals through dialogue, can find multi-layered aspects of a person's identity," Muir said.

"We make a lot of casual judgments about who someone is."

The Human Library Project runs from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Central Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Participation is free but people must register in advance.

To register for a conversation at the library, call 250-413-0388 or drop by the information desk.

For the art gallery call 250-384-4171, ext. 0, or drop by the gallery in person.

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