“They're a symbol of hope”: Dustbin man rescues books to create free community library

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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A dustbin man from Bogota, Colombia has quietly spent the last 20 years rescuing discarded books from rubbish bins in order to build a free community library.

Jose Alberto Gutierrez first had the idea for the project when he saved an abandoned copy of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that had been chucked away in someone else’s rubbish bin.

He then began rescuing books discarded by people living in the richer areas of town and distributing them to those living in the poorer communities.

Gutierrez, who has earned himself the (brilliant) nickname “The Lord of the Books”, has now saved a library of over 20,000 discarded books that overfill every nook and cranny of his home.

Known in the community as The Strength of Words, the library has become an essential resource for families who want to help their children with their homework but can't afford to buy the books required.

And Gutierrez, who only studied up to primary school level when he was younger, is more than happy to lend a hand.

“There was a lack of [books] in our neighbourhood, so we started to help,” he told the BBC.

Gutierrez has now collected so many books that he has started taking his collections directly to poorer neighbourhoods in the city, or transporting them to remote areas where children and their families don’t have access to libraries.

"The more books we give away, the more come to us," he said.

He has also become a source of comfort and knowledge for fighters being demobilised in Colombia's peace process, who come to him for books to help them brush up on the skills they need to re-enter civilian life.

“Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.”

And after helping others for so long through his project, Gutierrez is now also doing something for himself, by returning to school to study for the leaver’s exam that he missed when he was younger.

Images: iStock


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter