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‘Living library’ at Gressenhall Museum inspires communities across Europe

A Living Library took place at Gressenhall Museum, where visitors could take person out for 20 minutes and then return them for another - Trevor Bevan talks to Kristin Arnadottir from Iceland. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A Living Library took place at Gressenhall Museum, where visitors could take person out for 20 minutes and then return them for another - Trevor Bevan talks to Kristin Arnadottir from Iceland. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2013

Community champions from across Europe shared knowledge with their Norfolk counterparts during an innovative “living library” event at the Gressenhall Rural Life Museum.

Visitors from Slovenia, Iceland, Portugal and the Netherlands travelled to the former workhouse near Dereham, where they were given the chance to borrow people, rather than books.

The event, part of an EU-funded project to build sustainable “smart” communities, was organised by the Norfolk Rural Community Council (NRCC), which set up a shelf of human books including parish councillors, social entrepreneurs and parish activists.

The topics included the environment, parish plans, affordable housing, village halls and renewable energy.

The foreign delegates found many similarities with the issues facing their own communities – but also took away some new ideas.

Kristin Arnadottir, a town councillor from Iceland who runs a community centre in her home village, said: “I love this idea of a living library.

“It is definitely an idea I will take home with me, but I might be able to use it in a different way. I am also involved in tourism, and I am always looking for ways to make our village more accessible to tourists. People want to meet and talk to local people, so maybe this could be a way to ‘rent a local’.”

Tom Vellinga, who works with a sustainable villages network based in the Dutch province of Friesland, said: “It was very interesting for me to see that things are similar here.

“Every village all over the world is facing the same problems, whether it is about climate change, peak oil or biodiversity. All these big items will have an impact on the daily lives people. You can try to do something against it on your own, but you are stronger when you are doing it together.

“I think it is important, not only to share information, but to build self esteem.”

Jon Clemo, chief executive of the NRCC, said: “One of the key aspects of this project is communities learning from each other about the types of activities that work. The feedback we get is that people really value that peer support. We are using the living library concept to bring together community champions in different areas and letting people from different European communities hear their stories. It is a great way to support that peer learning.”

The “books” available for loan included Yvonne Davy from Hempnall Village Hall, Barry Duffin, chairman of Ashwellthorpe and Fundenhall Parish Council, and Andrew Purdy, who galvanised community support to revitalise the Ryburgh Village Shop, near Fakenham.

Mr Purdy said: “The problems we face in our villages are not unique to this country. I have spoken to people from Holland who used to have 10 shops and now have none. They are trying to pull the village together.

“That is what we have achieved in Ryburgh, and the shop has been the catalyst for all sorts of other things. It is demonstrating that anything is possible, and inspiring people.

“I quite often get asked to go and talk to people where they say their pub has closed and nothing is happening. I try to enthuse them that something can be done, and this living library is doing that on an international level.”

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