Trash To Treasure: Young & Old Across The World Create Libraries Out Of Discarded Old Books

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Throwing out a book might seem like a nightmarish thought for avid book lovers, no matter how old and brittle the pages turn, but the reality around the world speaks differently. All over the globe, tonnes of thousands of books end up in garbage dumps and landfills every year, left unread and uncared to turn to dust.

However, in Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, a garbage collector has created a book paradise from trash – a 25,000-book library built from discarded books he collected for over two decades. José Alberto Gutiérrez, just another humble garbage collector from the city and a primary school dropout himself, is now everyone’s favourite ‘Lord Of The Books’.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

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Gutiérrez’s journey began with Anna Karenina

His journey began with Leo Tolstoy’s timeless classic Anna Karenina when he discovered a discarded copy of the same and decided to keep it. Other books like Sophie’s World, The Little Prince and the marvellous novels of Nobel Laureate Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez soon made their way to his fast-growing collection.

“I realised that people were throwing books away in the rubbish. I started to rescue them,” Gutiérrez shared in a 2017 interview with Hindustan Times. As piles of rescued books started taking over entire rooms in his house in Nueva Gloria, word started to spread about his prized collection. Neighbours started coming to borrow textbooks for their children, who were soon followed by enthusiastic readers from the locality.

“We have a blessed curse upon us”

In 2000, Gutiérrez opened up his collection as a free library to the public. It didn’t take much time for word to spread and a horde of readers to pour in. Gutiérrez’s wife and children assisted him in expanding and managing the library, which now houses a mammoth collection with the help of pre-owned books donated by people.

“We have a blessed curse upon us. The more books we give away, the more come to us,” he had expressed.

The man behind it all also travels around the country to distribute free books among the underprivileged people in remote interiors, with limited access to education. At 56 years of age, he is now preparing for his school final examination.

Gutiérrez might be the frontrunner in building a library out of discarded books, but, amazingly, the trend has been picked up in other parts of the world by groups of Good Samaritans, young and old.

A children’s library by young Chinese sister duo

For instance, in China’s Henan province, two little sisters have collected books from junk and created a children’s library – perhaps one of the very few in the poverty-stricken and education-starved province reported Inkstone News.

12-year-old Wu Nannan and 10-year-old Wu Shike hail from one of the poorest parts of the country. They have to assist their family in work after school hours to earn a decent livelihood. The two siblings used to help their grandmother to collect and sell junk and scrap materials. That is where they chanced upon lots of thrown away books, magazines and newspapers – many of which were school textbooks. The girls stocked up the books in one room of the house and started inviting local children on holidays and weekends. Now it is a treasure trove for the little ones in the neighbourhood. A lot of them cannot afford new schoolbooks and borrow the same from this library.

The sisters’ library is receiving book donations from well-wishers, tallying their collection over 10,000. The local government has also acknowledged their incredible efforts and rewarded them with new bookshelves and furniture for the library.

Library by sanitation workers of Turkey

A group of sanitation workers from Turkey recently made headlines as the news of their library of discarded books surfaced on social media. As CNN reported, sanitation workers from the Turkish capital Ankara started saving discarded books a few years ago. As their collection piled up, they aimed to turn it into a library exclusively for the sanitation workers and their families. However, as word spread through the local community, they decided to open the library for the public in September 2017.

Housed at an abandoned brick factory, the library now comprises a collection of over 25,000 books of diverse genres, a sizeable proportion of which came from donations. The collection has been organised into 17 distinct categories, including children’s section or scientific research segment, each catering to a particular set of readers.

Inspired by the unprecedented success of the library, the workers’ group have started a mobile library with an old garbage truck, which delivers books to nearby schools and homes.

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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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