Library’s walking, talking books offer lives worth borrowing

Freeing the book from its pages, the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose is getting rid of the written word entirely in its living book series.

With titles like A Father’s Heart, A Bra and a Gun, Dodged a Bullet and Six Feet Under, the books haven’t been written yet and likely never will be.

The books are simply the people themselves, people with unique experiences willing to sit down, answer questions and tell a group of undergraduate students their story.

"In society, there’s too many hush-hush topics — you shouldn’t talk about that or you shouldn’t ask unless they mention it," says Nancy Goebel, head librarian and human rights advocate on campus.

"Yes, you need to be sensitive and respectful, but it’s good to talk about it and it’s good to learn from others."

That’s the message she’s trying to get across to students.

Members of the public are free to drop in as well at the sessions, which run today through Thursday evening.

The idea of a living library comes from folk music festivals in Scandinavia, where curious festival-goers would meet in cafes and ask questions to those who declared they had a story to tell.

They were originally designed to help people break down prejudices and stereotypes.

Goebel says Augustana has expanded the concept to bring in people with significant or unique life experiences.

Six Feet Under is a conversation with a funeral director.

Dodged a Bullet is a survivor of the NATO bombing in Belgrade. A Bra and a Gun is a female police officer.

Other books feature a professor who still carries memories of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Winnipeg, a provincial court judge who struggles to keep cynicism at bay, a transgendered person and a young man living with serious disabilities.

Goebel is trying to convince professors at Augustana to let students reference the living books to whom they talk in undergraduate research papers.

A Father’s Heart is about Dale Swanson’s journey to become a father.

His first child, Brendyn, was born with Down syndrome. He knew something was wrong as he watched the caesarean section from beside his wife’s shoulder. A nurse held the child, lifted his arm and let it fall again like a dish rag, then frantically suctioned his mouth to get a cry.

The child survived and, at age 12, Brendyn acts like a healthy three-year-old — smiling, lovable, but the moment Swanson or his wife take their eyes off him, he will do something like jump into a pool with his clothes on.

Swanson still thinks of his second child, Jayde, when he sees a ski hill.

She lived only 22 days, and spent a week at home lying on his bare chest in the living room, his steady breath reminding her to breath, too.

Snow fell outside the window and he told her about the hills they could soar down together. Gradually, her breathing stopped.

After Jayde, Swanson and his wife couldn’t try to get pregnant again. While they were still aching from the loss, they started the process of adoption from Haiti.

And when the orphanage in Haiti finally sent a photo, they dropped Brendyn off with a babysitter, drove to a quiet park, prayed and opened the envelope.

Keysha is now seven.

Her birth mother is in heaven caring for little Jayde.

They switched places, the family says.

Swanson wants to tell the students that adopting children doesn’t make them any less yours.

And he wants the students to better understand what it means to have Down syndrome, and to parent a child who matures and learns much slower.

"Some might say he’ll have simpler tastes, but he’s going to have a rich life."

There are lessons about grief here, but having children, and losing children, has also taught Swanson what it means to be a father.

"Being a father is to choose to step back out of the limelight and nurture a new life. To see where they go, and what their gifts are.

"And when they’re happy, gosh, your father’s heart, it’s full and breaking."


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