Talking books and breaking barriers

In the university library, students and faculty members, with the Rector Magnificus, gather around in a circle. Cups of coffee steam as the ‘living books’t get ready to narrate their stories.

The first “book” takes centre stage. PhD candidate Robert Setekera. He calls his story “Above the Clouds It’s Always Summer”. It is inspired by his flight to Amsterdam from Uganda. This is also his mantra in life, sunshine is always around the corner. Setekera’s talk is punctuated with photos of his country, his stay at TU Eindhoven and his take on the culture clash. “One thing I learnt quickly was to give short, to the point answers!” he laughs.

Setekera has a lot of jokes to share and the Rector, Karel Luyben, joins in with punch lines of his own. By the end of the first talk, the ice has broken. The 20 odd students present are now ready to share their own stories, and pepper the Rector with questions.

“That is the point of the Human Library. PhD students often work in isolation and don’t feel connected to the university. This seemed like a great way to bring them together, not only with other candidates, but also with members of the faculty,” explains Marion Vredeling, the Library Programme Manager. “The Rector was keen on a platform to interact with PhD candidates and he really liked this idea,” she adds. The format is simple. At every session a PhD student and a faculty member are asked to present themselves as books. While the students are usually picked by Vredeling, the Rector chooses the faculty member. So far, every edition has been a success. Former books include Iraqi microbiologist Salah Al Zuhairy, Sana Amir, a PhD student from Pakistan and Marielle Vogt, the director of finance of the university. Every story offers an insight into different cultures and daily life in different spheres of the university.

During the break between the two sessions, the Rector introduces himself to the students and invites everyone to say a bit about themselves. “We want to encourage people to talk openly and create an atmosphere that encourages conversation. In fact, one section of the evening is dedicated to an open discussion where students can raise any question,” he says.

Soon, the second book is ready. Wouter van der Wal, an Assistant Professor at the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, is ready to talk about “Expanding Knowledge”. His session is about the quirks of fate that determined his professional trajectory, including being chased by a grizzly bear in Banff, Canada.

“The first time I submitted a paper, my supervisor asked me to change the title. I was thrilled. I thought the rest of the paper was perfect. He soon clarified that by change the title, he meant I needed to change my topic altogether,” recalls Wal. He confesses that he got his first compliment from his supervisor after one and a half years of his PhD and that when he finally decided on a topic for his dissertation, he found that it had already been done.

The talk ends with the crowd engrossed a debate about paid journals versus open source information. The Rector, who had earlier said he would have to leave early on account of pending work, decides to stay on. “This is so engaging, I’d much rather stay,” he says.

The next Human Library session is on May 7. The books are Lourdes Silva De Souza, a PhD candidate from Brazil, and Dr. Elvin Karana, an Assistant Professor in Design Engineering.

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