Lonely Planet Writer

Meet Colombia's 'Lord of the Books': Bogota trash collector builds free community library from discarded books

A Colombian dustbin collector has spent 20 years collecting books he finds while on his rounds in Bogota, and has created a free community library. Jose Alberto Gutierrez established the library known as the La Fuerza de las Palabras (or The Strength of Words) from more than 20k books he has collected at his home.

Jose Alberto Gutierrez has created a free library of 20k books in his house in Bogota. Image: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images
Jose Alberto Gutierrez has created a free library of 20k books in his house in Bogota. Image: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

He lends them out to neighbours with the help of his wife, Luz Mery Gutierrez, and their three children. Many of the books have been thrown away by the people of the Colombian capital.

Jose began collecting the books over two decades ago when he found a discarded copy of Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina in the rubbish outside a home in Bogota’s Bolivia neighbourhood. When he realised that books were being thrown away in wealthier parts of the city, he made it his mission to retrieve them for the use of families in poorer areas.

Jose Alberto Gutierrez has created a free library of 20k books in his house in Bogota. Image: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images
Jose Alberto Gutierrez has created a free library of 20k books in his house in Bogota. Image: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

Even though he had to leave school at a young age because of poverty, Jose’s love for reading was fostered when his mother sent him to bed with a book every night. His actions around the library have earned Jose the nickname, The Lord of the Books. The books are housed in several rooms in his family home, and he takes books to poor parts of the city or remote areas without any access to libraries. He has also been providing books for fighters being demobilised in Colombia’s peace process

Jose Alberto Gutierrez has created a free library of 20k books in his house in Bogota. Image: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images
Jose Alberto Gutierrez has created a free library of 20k books in his house in Bogota. Image: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

While the other drivers were baffled by Jose’s actions, they now help him out, bringing him whatever books they discover on their rounds. Jose has been invited to share his amazing story at events in Colombia and abroad, including at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico, the largest fair of its kind in Latin America.