Valongo , Portugal

Do not Judge a Book by its Cover

Câmara Municipal de Valongo, Agência para a Vida Local

May 31, 2012

A living library uses life stories to engage young people and break down prejudice and stereotypes about diversity

valongoSometimes the best way to break down barriers and fight stereotypes is through a simple conversation. Through a unique travelling library program called the Living Library (Biblioteca Humana), students in Valongo, Portugal, have the opportunity to hear and exchange life stories with others in their communities. Organized to visit schools, the Library allows students to hear first-hand about the experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds (the “books”) who have faced prejudice in their daily lives.

The Living Library is one of several programs in the municipality’s Value Difference project, a major initiative undertaken by the city to create a more open and welcoming culture in Valongo.

Valongo is a small city of 100,000 located in northwestern Portugal. However, like many larger urban centres, Valongo’s city leaders recognized a need to address the growing diversity within its midst. The cross-cutting Value Difference project was developed by the city’s innovative social service agency, Agência para a Vida Local, which promotes human rights, equality and active inclusive citizenship. Project activities are delivered through the local settlement agency, the city’s Support Centre for the Integration of Immigrants.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

The Living Library program targets teenagers aged 14-18 and is delivered in cooperation with local schools where teachers prepare students for a lively conversation with the guest “books.” Modeled playfully on a regular school library, the class visits the library and reserves a ‘book’ for a limited period of time. Of course, the books are real people telling real stories, and it does not take long before living book and teenage ‘readers’ are engaged in a dialogue. The books in the Living Library are volunteers representing diverse community groups, such as immigrants, who are often victims of discrimination or social exclusion. The “readers” are organized in small groups to respond to these life stories and talk about their own prejudices and stereotypes. The goal is to deconstruct stereotypes based on the slogan: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Critical to the success of the Living Library is making sure that students have a safe space to ask challenging questions. Before the session, the class teacher discusses the goals of the project and together they prepare questions so the teenagers do not become blocked during the experience. The “readers” are split into four groups and spend twenty minutes which each of four human book volunteers and a librarian who is there as a facilitator. Examples of the stereotypes explored are: ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and disabilities. Finally, the activity is evaluated and teachers integrate it during classes.


The Living Library program within the Value Difference project has been recognized for its efforts to address discrimination by breaking down stereotypes and promoting interculturality. What began as a project of three schools and 150 students has now spread to 6 schools, 450 students and engages 5 immigrant volunteers – an impressive record in this small city and new immigrant gateway. The Living Library has been recognized by the Alto Comissariado para a Integração e Diálogo Intercultural (the National Mechanism for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue) as a best-practice and is being replicated across Portugal, in cooperation with immigrant NGOs such as Pontos nos Is and Amizade de Leste.

The Value Difference project also received a national prize, “Melhores Práticas Autárquicas em integração de imigrantes 2010” (Best Practices in the Integration of Immigrants 2010), for work that included a three-day Interculturality Fair, an Immigrant Employment space, a job fair and a business expo – in addition to its Living Library.

Making it Work for You:

  • Effective programming is customized to the specific needs and interests of the target population
  • An authentic approach using life stories from local neighbourhoods can be more effective than a big campaign.
  • When working with youth or vulnerable populations, it’s important to create a safe space for engagement

For this Good Idea contact:

Dr. Eunice Neves , City Councillor for Equality, Câmara Municipal de Valongo
Avª. 5 de Outubro
160 4440-503 Valongo, Portugal,
eneves @

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