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'Books need to be free,' so she's making it happen

"Once a librarian, always a librarian," Pattee Fletcher says.

Strictly speaking, she was never actually a librarian. But with postgraduate degrees in library and information sciences, she knows a little something about the profession.

About nine months ago, the retired college professor and master gardener added a piece to her backyard landscaping through which she shares her passion for books with her neighbors in Long Reach. At first glance, those passing by on the Columbia Association pathway that runs behind Fletcher's house in the Phelps Luck neighborhood might see it as either a very large bird house or an oddly placed doll house.

Roughly three feet square and mounted on a four-foot post, it has a gridded-glass front door and bears the label, "Little Free Library." Fletcher bought it after she learned of the Wisconsin nonprofit that uses such structures to promote literacy and libraries. The group now estimates there are about 15,000 of them worldwide.

In addition to Fletcher's, shows two other such structures in Howard County: one that the Oakland Mills Village Association has at the Other Barn, and one, built to look like a London phone booth, at an Ellicott City residence.

The Little Free Library takes the "take a book, leave a book" idea from coffee shops outdoors, inviting passers-by to grab something to read, with no strings attached. Those who are so moved can leave books they no longer want, for someone else to enjoy.

"I had a houseful sitting on shelves," Fletcher says. "I realized that books need to be free."

She gathered 100 works of fiction, 50 nonfiction books, 20 young adult novels, 50 kids books, 50 books in the house/garden/recipes vein and 50 biographies and put them out there for anyone who wanted them. She's since exhausted the portion of her own library she was willing to part with, so Fletcher now periodically restocks her backyard project with trips to the used bookstore on Dobbin Road.

Others have begun to make donations to the rotating collection too. Fletcher examines these gifts to make sure they aren't too beaten up. She doesn't keep magazines in her Little Free Library, and while she has no particular objection to self-published works, she's had to remove shrink-wrapped bundles of such books.

She also had to ask one persistent entrepreneur to stop putting his business cards in the box.

She estimates that people stop and check out her Little Free Library a half dozen times a day, but those are just the ones she sees from her window or deck.

"It's so much fun to watch the kids going through the books," she says. Indeed, children's books have proven to be the most in demand, by far, at Fletcher's pathway attraction.

She's struck up a friendship with a particular set of siblings, for whom she keeps an eye out for new "Star Wars" titles.

What started for Fletcher as a little literacy crusade has turned out to render an additional benefit: connections with people in our neighborhood she had found wanting.

"The thing I like about it is the sense of community," she says.

When she and her husband, Lester Diamond, put a new porch across the front of their house a few years back, she thought it would lead to more interaction with her neighbors, as they sat outside and called to folks doing likewise.

"When we lived in Syracuse," New York, where Fletcher taught and studied government information systems before she moved here to teach at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where she spent 18 years, "that was just how people lived. You'd see your neighbor across the yard and say, 'Hey, we're grilling some burgers out back. Come on over, and bring some cole slaw.' "

People here — where summers are hotter and air conditioning is more ardently sought, Fletcher concedes — are much more apt to spend time indoors, and less likely to know their neighbors, she observes.

She's got a point. I've lived around the corner from her since we moved into our house in 1998, but Pattee Fletcher and I had not met until last week.

We'll see each other again, though. But first I have some old books to go through.

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