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Small libraries grow in popularity

Howard Hashem visits the Little Free Library that he set up  under a maple tree in front of his Watertown home.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Howard Hashem visits the Little Free Library that he set up under a maple tree in front of his Watertown home.

Howard Hashem got the idea to build a tiny library this winter in Florida, during his annual retreat from the cold. When he and his wife, Florence, returned to Watertown in the spring, he got to work.

He began with a bookcase that a neighbor had left out on the curb, and added a glass door from an entertainment center. He installed a peaked roof, complete with a round hole in the front to make a bird house. He attached a side shelf with room for more books.

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Hashem set up his creation beneath a maple tree outside his front door at Garnet and Phillips streets, and filled it with a few dozen books from his collection.

“I figured they’re not doing any good, sitting on my shelf,” he said.

Right away, people began stopping to check out his handiwork, which resembles a miniature house. His books began to disappear. New ones, including children’s books, materialized.

‘I fell in love the second they told me about it.’

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Hashem had read about the Little Free Library movement, which started in Wisconsin in 2009, and is spreading far and wide. The low-tech paean to reading and sharing books has inspired the creation of about 10,000 little libraries around the world, according to Todd Bol, a founder of the nonprofit group promoting the concept.

The libraries, usually no larger than a phone booth, have popped up in every state and in 51 countries, he said. El Paso has 60. Ukraine has 100. Seattle has bike tours to see them. Some of the more unusual libraries are shaped like owls and clocks.

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Little Free Library installations have also been set up in Brookline, Framingham, Cambridge, and Somerville.The overseers of the little boxes of books often have the same goals as the movement’s founders — encouraging people to read, and building community.

Jervette Ward, an assistant professor of English and multicultural literature at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, read about the libraries and decided to bring one to campus.

Emily McNulty, then a sophomore and English department research assistant, was asked to take on the project.

“I fell in love the second they told me about it,” she said.

McNulty, who lives in East Boston with her family, enlisted the help of her father, a crane technician. He helped her build the library low enough for someone in a wheelchair to reach, and illuminated with a solar light so it would be visible at night. They spelled out the college’s name in green, one of the school colors.

One of their neighbors, a former librarian, donated children’s books. Many of the other books in the library’s original offerings came from Ward’s collection, including “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

“It was the very first book to go, which at a women’s college made a lot of sense,” Ward said.

The Little Free Library was set up this spring at the college’s front gate, near the bus stop for commuter students, with a launch party and ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The project has proved to be contagious. McNulty says she hopes to create one at University of Massachusetts Boston, where she has transferred. And Ward, now an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, says she plans to build one there.

“I hope that other people start building Little Free Libraries,” she said. “I hope that it starts to spread like wildfire.”

Heather Klish, a systems librarian at Tufts University, had also read about the Little Free Library movement, and an idea began to spin in her head.

“I was very interested in having one,” Klish said. “So when we bought a house in Framingham, I kept thinking about it.”

Before Klish could set one up, her wife surprised her with one for her 40th birthday. She had downloaded plans from the Little Free Library website, and her stepfather built it. She painted the box with pictures of the couple’s current and former dogs, with halos around the pets no longer with them.

They rotate the library’s collection once a week, and feature special books around Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah. Among other benefits, their Little Free Library has helped them meet new neighbors.

“I think the sweetest thing we saw,” Klish said, “was a mother/daughter actually sitting next to our library, reading.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kathleen.burge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.

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