Public libraries add seeds for customers to browse like books

This story was originally posted on Civil Eats.

At the public library in Mystic, Connecticut, a card catalog that once stored due dates for books now contains endless seed packets. There are eggplants and kale, marigolds and zinnias; over 90 different types of seeds available for anyone with a take-and-plant card.

“The library has become so much more than just a place to walk in and find books,” said Leslie Weber, youth services associate at the Mystic & Noank library. “It’s becoming a community center, and the Seed Library fits perfectly into that. It gets people out, involves kids in gardening, and we strive to tackle food insecurity with it.

Mystic’s seed library is just one of many that have sprung up across the country over the past decade – including in Georgia, California, Colorado, Arizona and Maine – as seed libraries are turning to seeds to help them meet the daily needs of the communities they serve in new ways. By providing customers with free seeds, libraries can also combat food insecurity and biodiversity loss, while building community resilience.

“The American Library Association has added sustainability as a core value of librarianship,” said Jenny Rockwell of Oakland Public Library‘s (OPL) Asian Branch in Oakland, California. “Supporting a relationship with nature through gardening and seed management supports this intention.”

Seed sharing in public libraries dates back to at least 2010, and although no one knows how many such programs exist around the world, but it is likely that the number has now reached hundreds. Many started after the pandemic forced people out and encouraged them to find ways to be more resilient, especially in how they get food.

“It’s a good thing that has come out of COVID, because people have gained a new appreciation for the outdoors,” said Mystic & Noank Library Director Christine Bradley. At the start of the pandemic, she said: “We did all the children’s programming outdoors, we put up picnic tables, we started a children’s garden and now we are planning a whole library park . The seed library integrates perfectly.

give and receive

The César E. Chávez branch of the OPL system was the first of 17 sites in the city to open a seed library, in 2012, inspired by librarian Pete Villasenor, who saw one in Potrero Branch from the San Francisco Public Library. “We like to show our customers that starting their own gardens doesn’t have to be difficult with the free seeds we offer here,” Villasenor said.

Over the years, more and more branches within the OPL system have added seed libraries – and after renewed interest in 2020, the BPO has expanded its seed libraries to eight locations, with another set to open shortly.

Although each public library seed collection works differently, most allow patrons to pick up a certain number of seeds whenever they want. Traditionally, people have been encouraged to reciprocate seeds, either when they bought too many or when they harvested them from their gardens. However, this policy varies from state to state, as some state laws prohibit specific labels or require seed testing.

Librarians often replenish their seed stocks by soliciting donations from nonprofit organizations and seed companies, such as the Seed savers exchange and Hudson Valley Seed Company (HVSC). Between November 2021 and February 2022, HVSC donated approximately 10,000 seed packets to seed libraries, schools, educational programs and community gardens. Of the more than 200 seed requests from over 30 states and Canada this year, just over half of those requests were from people at institutions that had just started a seed library or had seen significantly more demand. .

“We’ve been donating since we started,” said Catherine Kaczor, sales and marketing manager at HVSC. “It has always been important for us to share this potential of food and beauty. People deserve good food and vegetables that are part of their culture and community.

Some libraries also buy seeds to donate. “Generally, it’s a lot of work for librarians to solicit donations and seed funding on a regular basis,” said Rockwell, who says it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the demand. “Because the program is so popular and continues to grow, we are looking to identify a consistent source of funding to buy seeds in a streamlined way instead of each library coordinating themselves. [by] identify donors.

Beyond seed distribution

Some seed libraries go far beyond simple seed distribution. Many have created community workshops, events, and other programs to educate the community about seed saving, seed sovereignty, gardening, and urban agriculture.

Some libraries – including the Mystic & Noank Library in Connecticut and the César E. Chávez branch in Oakland – also have gardens on the library grounds where community members can grow or harvest food.

“The garden has brought a lot of positivity and joy to our community and our staff,” said Villasenor of the Chávez branch. The library’s Huerta de Dolores garden, named after Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union who worked alongside César Chávez, enabled some library patrons to adopt a small patch of land in the shared space and inspired others to start their own. home gardens. “We all find that being in the garden helps relieve stress and helps build community among guests from all walks of life,” Villasenor said.

The Huerta de Dolores Garden also includes a volunteer and youth intern program and staff work with the transition program for adults at the Ala Costa Center, a non-profit, community-based organization serving young adults with developmental disabilities. Volunteers help with everything from sorting seeds, repacking and organizing to pruning, planting, weeding and watering the garden.

Other libraries in the OPL system offer additional programs around seed libraries, including soil pellet distribution and growing instructions. More recently, at another branch, the library handed out grab-and-grow kits for Asia-Pacific Heritage Month in May, which included free seeds, growing instructions, recipes, and more.

Many libraries also encourage patrons to grow food for food banks with the seeds they receive. Weber and Bradley of Mystic & Noank Library are urging patrons who pick up seed packets to plant an extra row to donate to local food banks as part of the Connecticut Food Bank. Plant a Row for the Hungry Program.

They also plan to plant a garden giving back to the library where anything that grows would be donated to a food bank in addition to the children’s garden they already offer (which this author volunteers at).

Pandemic-induced change

The seed library at Jefferson Public Library in Jefferson, Georgia started in 2019 and has rapidly grown in popularity since then. Elizabeth Jones, Library Night Supervisor and Seed Librarian, estimates the library served 35 people in 2019, over 200 in 2020 and over 300 in 2021. She expects to top that number this year.

When COVID closed the Jefferson Library, its librarians turned their attention to the library’s website, which they sought to make, among other things, “a one-stop shop for gardening expertise,” Jones said.

The two primary goals of the seed library, Jones said, are to educate new and experienced growers and to create a genetically diverse local seed stock that acclimates to the region despite a changing climate. In addition to providing seeds, the Jefferson Seed Library offers programs on topics such as seed saving and cleaning, composting, and food preservation. It also hosts a vegetable swap and potluck where customers can compare their gardening notes.

While Jones and the Jefferson Public Library have been focused on their website during the COVID closures, other locations, including the OPL and the University of San Francisco (USF) Seed Library, which began in 2014, took advantage of the pandemic to strengthen and expand its seed libraries. USF offered several different online courses and helped lead classroom discussions about the global seed industry and found ways to send seeds to interested people.

“We want to reduce barriers to growing food,” said Carol Spector, librarian at the USF Seed Library. “Of course, the seeds are cheap, but if they’re free and you can try them, that takes the risk away.”

Open to students and faculty, the USF Seed Library is a joint program between the school’s library and its urban agriculture department. Containing 40-50 seed varieties in labeled envelopes, the collection prioritizes organic, heirloom and culturally relevant seeds, with 20-30 types available at any one time depending on the season.

The offer has evolved over the years to meet the needs of students. “At first, we prioritized vegetables,” Spector said, “but over time, students became interested in flowers and herbs, which are often easier to grow on a window sill. dormitory.”

Students in the Urban Agriculture program are introduced to the library during class; field trips to the library involve discussions of how seed libraries can protect heirloom seeds and cultural traditions and the global decline of genetic diversity of seeds.

The hope – at USF and beyond – is to help people begin to see how the cultivation of food as an individual connects to the larger web of production and consumption for the sake of improvement. “It’s a way for students to learn about the food system in a really engaging way,” Spector said.

Public libraries make extracting seeds and planting a garden easier [Civil Eats]

Colin L. Johnson