Rescuing books from the trash in Bogotá

How one man’s idea to rescue books from the trash contributed to everyday life in Bogotá.


José Alberto in one of his many libraries

Recently my colleague Elena interviewed José Alberto about his success in recycling books for schoolkids in Bogotá, Colombia. (You can read her original post in Spanish at

In his work as a trash hauler, José Alberto observed usable books discarded by households throughout the city.

He knew that children in the low-income neighborhood near his home had difficulty getting the books they needed for their school work, there was no bookstore nearby, and the nearest library was a long way away.

So fifteen years ago, he decided to rescue them and make them available to the kids in his neighborhood. Starting in the ground floor of his own home, he has expanded the network of bibliotecas into eight neighborhoods of the city. As word of his project has spread, more and more Bogotános donate used books directly to him, avoiding the detour into a waste bin.

Elena says that José’s entire family has been involved in this never-ending project for 15 years now: “They don’t have a car or even a little motorbike, and frequently they cross the city after somebody’s call to pick up boxes of books that then they carry in buses all across the city.” By opening his own home as a place to find books, José Alberto started something that has changed the lives of thousands of children (and their parents) in Bogotá.

Did you know we have a Spanish site? parallels the offerings of Idealist with jobs, volunteer opportunities, and frequent updates on its blog. If you can point out a project or activity that should be highlighted for visitors to Idealistas, please let us know.

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Book Review: Librarians as Modern Superheroes

In This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, Marilyn Johnson guides us through a world that few library patrons have probably thought about: the progressive, activist, cutting-edge, modern, hip, and exciting side of libraries and librarians.

Johnson easily convinces us that librarians do much more than shelve books, and provide more than just a place for the public to access information for free (as if that weren’t a noble enough cause!). She shows the range of other roles that librarians play in society. Some library professionals double as “street librarians” who volunteer to supply information to activists during protests. Others have staunchly defended civil liberties, keeping their community members’ confidential information private, even in the face of government mandates. And there’s even a whole chapter about reference librarian avatars in Second Life, and how the virtual world became a safe space to connect people with information on sensitive topics such as transgender identity.

This Book Is Overdue! demonstrates that librarians not only have to keep up with technology and other trends, but are often active agents of change as well. Johnson introduces us to a fellowship program in which leaders from all around the world gather in Rome to learn techniques from librarians on how to access, organize, and share information—skills that they’ll bring home to empower the underserved communities that they work with. In another chapter, she highlights archivists as benevolent preservationists of things that might otherwise get lost forever, from ever-changing online material, to obscure zines, to finicky electronic documents, to artifacts that get tossed to the curb.

The book provides a fun overview of the unexpected roles librarians play, as well as the quirky culture that arises out of their profession. But it doesn’t quite serve as a cohesive or critical piece. Readers may be left wondering about the actual impact of all of this noble work, because Johnson stops short of examining it.

Johnson’s book comes at a crucial time. It’s a good reminder of the services we’re losing as libraries face dramatic budget cuts; maybe it will give readers that extra push they need to decide to donate to their local library system. It also demonstrates that library services are not becoming unnecessary with the rise of the web; in fact, they’re becoming even more useful and accessible.

If you want more juicy details, borrow the book from your local library, or buy it from Amazon using this link (a royalty will be paid that helps support As you read through the fascinating anecdotes, don’t be surprised if you find yourself daydreaming about getting a graduate degree in information sciences. If you’re serious about it, you can even talk to admissions representatives from these programs at some of our Graduate Degree Fairs.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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