When Edwin Lindo first shared the idea for Estelita’s Library, the landlord didn’t think he was serious. It was only after the shelves were up that he realized Lindo was determined to see this social justice-oriented library through.
Estelita’s Library opened only eight months ago in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood with a goal to be a community space where people feel at home enough to have the kinds of tough conversations that typically don’t happen in coffee shops—on social justice topics like race, poverty, and gentrification. Edwin Lindo, the library’s founder, spoke about the library’s format and challenges on Saturday morning at the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Seattle as a part of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries.
One of the first things library workers tend to notice about Estelita’s Library, according to Lindo, is that its books aren’t categorized. “A lot of people, they lose their minds,” he says, but “our argument is that all these books are cataloged under the title of social justice.” The library’s collections—made up of his own books and donations from community members, with a focus on local authors—are placed on shelves as space allows. While a particular shelf of books might not have an obvious theme, Lindo emphasizes that the act of searching can lead people to discover connections and perhaps pick up books they wouldn’t otherwise. “Serendipity allows for an amazing act of finding knowledge,” he says. Still, the books are cataloged using a small library app, which allows the library to track which items are out on loan so its volunteers know when not to search the shelves.
The library is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, funded by donations, grants, and a membership system with sliding-scale, pay-what-you-can membership fees. Students receive free memberships, and those that can’t afford fees are never turned away. Another key to keeping the library accessible to all has been not charging late fees. Lindo recalled trying to check out books from the library as a young teen, only to be told he’d accumulated hundreds of dollars in late fees years earlier. “I felt like a criminal,” he said. “I felt like there was this tag on my head.” The shame from that experience kept him away from the library into adulthood.
Estelita’s Library currently has more than 350 members and has loaned 1,300 books—all of which have been returned so far, despite the lack of late fees. “People know if they take a book and don’t bring it back, they’ve taken a book from the community,” he says. In fact, many borrowers bring back more books than they left with to donate to the collection.
Despite its small size, Estelita’s Library offers a lot to its community. It serves food, hosts poetry nights and salsa dance parties, acts as a coworking space, and supports community groups that need a space to meet. Lindo emphasizes the importance of providing a consistent space for interaction. This year, the library received a Tiny Cultural Space grant from the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, which will provide the organization with a 400-square-foot structure on surplus land that’ll be owned by the library in exchange for five years of successful social justice programming.
As a small, upstart library, Lindo expected Estelita’s Library to be seen as a threat or competition by the library mainstream, but has been surprised by the support and encouragement he’s received from the library community. The King County Library has asked Estelita’s to bring its chess group to host an event at one of its branches. Seattle Public Library is lending resources for one of Estelita’s Library’s more ambitious projects: digitizing issues of the Black Panther Party newspaper. Lindo has collected more than 300 issues—what he believes is the largest collection of Black Panther Party newspapers in the world—and has several on display. His hope is to be able to share the papers digitally and in a traveling exhibition.
Of course, starting a library has given Lindo a greater appreciation for librarians. “As time has gone on, I am so thankful that you all are in our schools, in our cities,” he says. “It’s a significant endeavor. I’ve seen it. I feel it.”