A library started by rubbish collectors in Turkey’s capital Ankara from books collected from the trash has grown into a social and cultural community hub – with even an orchestra playing discarded instruments.

“We started to collect books from the trash thinking that our employees and their children might want to read them,” explained Emirali Urtekin, head of the rubbish disposal unit in the municipality of Çankaya.

Emirali Urtekin, head of the rubbish disposal unit in the municipality of Çankaya, said his unit started to collect books from the trash thinking that the employees and their children might want to read them.

But after various international media outlets reported on their fledgling library last year, Turkish interest dramatically increased and his unit started receiving large donations of books. The collection quickly got so large – now amounting to more than 20,000 titles – that they needed to find a space to house it. 

Now, an old brick factory owned by the Cankaya municipality some 25 kilometres outside of Ankara hosts the vast resource of children books, science fiction, romance, classic novels and non-fiction and has become a community hub. Within easy reach of Ankara, it also has a cafeteria, a barber shop, a chess club and even a small cinema.

Urtekin said that the old brick factory had become a local attraction, with the number of visitors constantly growing.

“What makes our library special is that people see garbage trucks parked in front of that building, and that gives it a special meaning,” he added. 

The team had even been able to create libraries in three local high schools from their surplus books, with more planned, Urtekin continued.

Books found in trash are first collected at a warehouse in the Cankaya municipalityin Ankara.

There is a general lack of public libraries in Turkey. According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Turkey – with a population of around 80 million – has only 1,143 public libraries, while the UK, for example, has five times as much. 

“There are many schools in Turkey that need books, especially those in Eastern Turkey. We try to send books to as many schools in need as we can,” Urtekin explained.  

The Cankaya rubbish collectors also formed a band named Tin Group, featuring flute and saz stringed instruments found in the trash, with bins serving as drums. 

The Cankaya rubbish collectors formed a band named Tin Group, featuring flute and saz stringed instruments found in the trash, with bins serving as drums. 

“One day we put a notice on the entrance that musicians are needed for this new band, but when no one responded, I ordered a few workers to get together and form a band,” Urtekin laughed.

The band have become well-known, playing at various events including the International Labour Film Festival and at a public concert on International Labour Day this year.

“I was very excited when we had our first concert,” said Musa Akın, a rubbish collector during the day and a Tin Group drummer at night. “Before joining this band, I just listened to music, but now I make music. Our concerts are always well received and that is a great motivation for us.”

An old brick factory owned by the Cankaya municipality hosts the vast resource of children books, science fiction, romance, classic novels and non-fiction and has become a community hub.

The rubbish collector’s efforts have also highlighted the issue of waste management in a country with a notoriously bad record on recycling.

According to the Daily Sabah newspaper, Turkey produces around 31 million tonnes of waste annually, and only 11 per cent is recycled. The country hopes to increase that number to 35 per cent by 2023. 

Rubbish collector Akın said that at first he was horrified to find discarded books among the bins.

“How could anyone treat books as garbage?” he said. “But now I’m glad that people discard them, because that helped us create our own library.”

Those who borrow books are under no obligation to return them, Urtekin explained.

“These books don’t belong to us, we took them from trash,” he said. “So, no one has to return them to us. But that rarely happens. Most people return books to our library when they have read them.” 

The rubbish collectors themselves make good use of the facilities.

“When I started working in this library, there were only 150 books. That number increased to 2,000 in just a few months and now we have more than 20,000,” said 22-year-old Eray Yılmaz, who was a cleaner until he was assigned to the library. He now carefully cleans all the books brought in by the rubbish collectors before filing them. 

“I have never been a librarian before. Sometimes I find old letters in some of the books and to me that is very exciting,” he continued, adding that his colleagues came to the library every day to borrow books or spend some quiet time.

Sanitation worker Mehmet Ali Bıçakçı says that he reads many more books now than before, when the library didn’t exist.

Sanitation worker Mehmet Ali Bıçakçı is one of them. 

“I read many more books now than before, when the library didn’t exist,” he said.

So is Engin Çınar, who serves tea in this facility and spends most of his spare time in the library.

“I feel relaxed when I’m there,” he said. “My wife often asks me to bring her books when I go home, and I’m happy that she too can benefit from this collection.”