By Nicole Jeffries
Jose Alberto Gutierrez, a trash collector from Bogota, Colombia has spent the last 20 years rescuing discarded books from garbage bins in order to build a free community library.
Gutierrez still remembers seeing the book that started it all, the Russian classic Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy in a garbage bin outside a home in a Bogota neighborhood. But, rather than loading the book up with the rest of the waste, he took it home and it was the start of a wonderful obsession.
Today, Gutierrez, or “The Lord of the Books”, as he is now nicknamed has a library of over 20,000 discarded books that fill every nook and cranny of his home. His home known as La Fuerza de las Palabras, which is Spanish for “The Strength of Words”, is also a community library.
His library has become an important resource for families who want to help their children with their homework but can’t afford to buy the books required. Gutierrez, who only went to elementary school is more than happy to lend a hand.
He has donated reading materials to some 235 schools, institutions, and community libraries across Colombia. One of his first contributions was to his neighborhood’s only school which did not have a library until Gutierrez came along.
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.
Gutierrez also helps fighters being demobilized 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.
And after helping so many other people through his project, Gutierrez is doing something for himself — he is returning to school to study for his school leaver’s exam.