Browsing the Human Library

There's a great concept which I've been hearing about for years called the Human Library. As the name suggests, it's a library which loans out people instead of books. For the Danish guys who came up with it, the purpose was quite specific:

The people represent social groups which often encounter prejudices and stereotypes, and are exposed to discrimination and exclusion, e.g. politicians, homosexuals, social workers and gang members. The aim is to break down prejudices and forge contacts between people who might not normally meet.

A borrower gets matched up with someone whose story will challenge their assumptions and the pair spend half an hour talking over a coffee.

This is a wonderful idea, and one that could be extended beyond its usefulness for confronting prejudice. Think of all the contexts in which it would be great to spend a little time with someone with a particular experience or expertise - for careers advice, maybe, or a project for school or work, or just to get answers to some questions that have really been bugging you.

I was reminded of this by a fantastic blog post I read last week - 'Will Explain Physics For Food...?'. The author, Clifford V. Johnson, a professor at the University of Southern California, recently got an email out of the blue from a lawyer:

Turns out that in their spare time, he and his law partner spend time discussing and arguing about physics concepts such as General and Special Relativity, and Cosmology. They’d got to a point where they were confused about various details. The popular level books that they were reading did not really do it for them in terms of getting them past certain concepts and they thought that they’d just contact a physicist and ask.

Clifford's response was enthusiastic:

Learning of members of the general public being interested in discussing physics just out of general interest is music to my ears! I consider explaining physics to members of the general public as part of my job - my duty as a scientist.

So the three of them met for lunch and spent two hours talking physics, an experience that was clearly valuable all round, and which left Clifford wondering about the broader possibilities for meeting new people through a shared interest in particular topics.

What alerted me to his post was a comment from another physics blogger, Jasper Palfree, who suggested that School of Everything would be a great platform for organising just this kind of one-off, informal learning. (Jasper himself is now signed up to explain physics over coffee to anyone in the Toronto area!)

Reading Clifford's post, it's clear that there could be a role for School of Everything as a "human library" for the public understanding of science. What other areas of knowledge and experience would it be most valuable to make accessible in this way, I wonder? And are there organisations or networks we should be talking to about this?