Ahead of Thursday’s (7 March) World Book Day, the annual celebration of books, authors and illustrators, Dr Maria Castrillo, head of special collections and engagement at Senate House Library, turns the page on a set of unique cardboard publications from Latin America, which ‘offer a window to hope through creativity’.

Senate House Library (SHL) is currently building a new special collection of ‘cartonera’ (cardboard) books from Latin America. While this in itself may not seem newsworthy – after all bringing in new collections to the Library in a variety of formats and media is our trade – these new books are intriguing and unique in their own right.

They are like no other books in the collection, for they are hand-made using discarded materials such as cardboard, recycled paper and sometimes fabric. Most of them are hand-painted, stitched and often display colourful images and words encapsulating the content of the book.

What are ‘cartonera’ books?

The term ‘cartonera’ refers to the Spanish word ‘cartón’, cardboard in English. ‘Cartonera’ books originate in the iconic La Boca district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, around 2001, when the country was plunged into a deep financial crisis. The challenging economic climate led to a rise in the number of street cardboard hand-pickers (‘cartoneros’) who sold their wares to recycling plants.

Social and political turbulence also resulted in people taking to the streets, protesting, gathering in neighbourhood assemblies, the barter clubs, and establishing communal and collaborative endeavours. It was against this climate of protest that Argentinian writers and activists Santiago Vega, (aka Washington Cucurto) and Javier Barilaro came across the cardboard hand-pickers and decided to start a new publishing venture that involved the re-use of discarded materials to make books of poetry, prose and fiction at very low prices and accessible to most people.

What started as a small bookselling adventure soon inspired similar initiatives across Latin America, the US, and in some African and European countries as well. Today the ‘cartonera’ publishers are a global grassroots movement with strong elements of social, ecological and digital activism that challenges the larger publishing houses and their dominating position in the publishing market.

A new way of building up Senate House Library’s collections

Back in 2016, Senate House Library decided to build up a permanent collection of ‘cartonera’ books from Mexico and Brazil, following an approach from two academics – Dr Lucy Bell, Surrey University, and Dr Alex Flynn, Durham University. It was part of their Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Precarious publishing in Latin America: relations, meaning, and community in movement’, in which SHL is one of the main non-academic partners. The others are The British Library and Cambridge University Library.

The project involved a collaborative approach to developing the collections and therefore a new way of working for all those involved. The libraries discussed and agreed on the collecting criteria that best suited their own policies, and communicated these to the academics before they undertook their fieldwork in Mexico and Brazil.

Meanwhile, the academic partners acted as the intermediaries between the ‘cartonera’ publishers and the three libraries. It is worth noting that most of the publishers are quite small and establishing contact with them requires a different approach to the one we use for more established suppliers of books and manuscripts.

This way of working has led to the establishment of diverse and complementary collections at each institution, which will surely enrich the researcher’s experience when encountering this material for the first time. Furthermore, by working in partnership with academics and fellow librarians we have created new and long-lasting links for future collaborative projects involving these collections.

Sustainable literature for all

The first 40 books from Mexico have made their way onto the Library’s shelves. In the next few weeks, another 20 will come from Mexico, 50 from Brazil and 22 from Eloisa Cartonera, Argentina’s first ‘cartonera’ publisher.

These books are as diverse, colourful and delicate as one could imagine. Most of the authors so far represented in the collection are novel writers who otherwise would have found it almost impossible to have their work published and disseminated. Poetry, short fiction stories and comics are the most common genres found in the collection.

Each item is unique not only because of its physical appearance but also because of the themes and topics it addresses. They range from advocating the piracy of cultural goods as a way to achieve cultural equality, to promoting poetry as a vehicle for political insurgency and resistance in the face of racist policies or the rise in autocratic governments.

‘Cartonera’ books give a voice to women’s rights, the rights of indigenous people and those of the dispossessed. Above all, they often espouse humour as the most universal and egalitarian human character trait, and offer a window to hope through creativity.

‘Cartonera’ books are accessible, diverse and sustainable for they are made of materials such as cardboard, recycled paper and their pages are often printed on a borrowed printing machine. Their very nature is ephemeral, since they are meant to be disseminated until the materials they are made of disintegrate and disappear. They are a true celebration of literacy, books and reading, becasue anyone can make and own their ‘cartonera’ book from scratch.

In the next few months, as the books continue to arrive in the Library we hope to work with our partners to bring the collection to the attention of researchers and the public. If possible, we would like to bring some of the ‘cartonera’ publishers to Senate House this autumn and introduce the artisanal techniques of book-making to anyone who may be interested.

On World Book Day it is worth remembering that it is possible to transform discarded garbage into beautiful and unique books that anyone can own, and in doing so blur the lines that separate literature and poverty.