the story is Originally Posted on Civil Eats.
At the public library in Mystic, Connecticut, a card catalog that previously stored book expiration dates now has endless seed packs. There are eggplants and kale, marigolds and zinnias; over 90 different types of seeds for anyone with a card to take home and grow.
“The library has become more than just a place to come in and pick up books,” said Leslie Weber, a youth services assistant at Mystic & Noank Libraries. “It’s becoming a community hub, and the seed bank is just right for that. It’s getting people out and getting kids involved in gardening, and we’re working to address food insecurity.”
The seed bank in Mystic is just one of many that have sprung up across the country over the past decade—including Georgia, California, Colorado, Arizona, and Maine—as libraries turn to seeds to help them satisfy humanity daily needs. The communities they serve in new ways. By providing free seeds to patrons, libraries can also combat hunger insecurity and biodiversity loss—while building community resilience.
“The American Library Association has made sustainability a core value of library business,” said Jenny Rockwell, Asia Branch of the Oakland Public Library (OPL) in Oakland, California. “Supporting a relationship with nature through gardening and managing seeds supports this intent.”
Seed sharing in public libraries dates back to at least 2010, and while no one has tracked the number of such items, it may now be in the hundreds. Many started after the pandemic forced people to go out and encouraged them to find more resilient ways, especially when it comes to how they shop for food.
“It’s a good thing that COVID has brought about because there’s a new awareness of the outdoors,” said Christine Bradley, director of the Mystic & Noank library. In the early days of the pandemic, she said, “We did all our children’s programming outdoors, we set up picnic tables, we opened a children’s garden, and now we’re planning a full library park. The seed bank fits right in.”
give and receive
In 2012, the César E. Chávez branch of the OPL system was the first of 17 locations in the city to open a seed library, inspired by librarian Pete Villasenor, who saw one at the Potrero branch of the San Francisco Public Library. “We like to show our customers that it’s not difficult to start their own garden with the free seeds we offer here,” says Villasenor.
More branches within the OPL system have added seed banks over the years – after a surge in interest in 2020, OPL has expanded its seed bank to eight locations, with another expected to open soon.
While each public library seed collection works differently, most allow patrons to acquire a certain number of seeds at any time. Traditionally, people are encouraged to contribute seeds in a reciprocal manner, whether by buying too many seeds or collecting them in the garden. However, this policy varies by state, as some state laws prohibit the use of specific labels or require seeds to be tested.
Librarians often replenish their seed stocks by soliciting donations from nonprofit organizations and seed companies such as the Seed Savers Exchange and the Hudson Valley Seed Company (HVSC). Between November 2021 and February 2022, HVSC donated approximately 10,000 seed packets to seed banks, schools, educational programs and community gardens. Slightly more than half of the more than 200 seed applications from more than 30 states and Canada this year came from people who are just starting out with seed banks or institutions that are in greater demand.
“We’ve been donating since the beginning,” said Catherine Kaczor, HVSC’s sales and marketing manager. “It has always been important for us to share potential food and beauty. People deserve quality food and vegetables that are part of their culture and community.”
Some libraries also buy seeds to give away. “In general, it’s a tough job for librarians to regularly raise donations and funds for seed,” said Rockwell, who said keeping up with demand was nearly impossible. “Because the program is so popular and continues to expand, we are looking for a consistent source of funding to purchase seeds in a streamlined manner, rather than each library coordinating on its own [by] Identify donors. “
Beyond Seed Distribution
Some seed banks go far beyond simply distributing torrents. Many have created community workshops, events and other programs to educate communities about seed conservation, seed sovereignty, horticulture and urban farming.
Some libraries—including the Mystic & Noank Library in Connecticut and the César E. Chávez branch in Oakland—also have gardens on library grounds where community members can grow or harvest food.
“The garden brings a lot of positivity and joy to our community and our employees,” said Villaseno of the Chavez division. The library’s Huerta de Dolores garden, named after Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union who worked with César Chávez, enables some library patrons to adopt a small patch of soil in the shared space and inspires others to start home Has its own garden. “We’ve all found that being in the garden helps relieve stress and helps build community among patrons from all walks of life,” says Villasenor.
The Huerta de Dolores Gardens also includes a volunteer and youth intern program, where staff work with the Alacosta Center’s Adult Transition Program, a nonprofit community organization serving young adults with developmental disabilities . Volunteers help with everything from seed sorting, repacking and grooming to pruning, planting, weeding and watering.
Other banks in the OPL system offer additional programs around seed banks, including gifting soil pellets and growing instructions. Recently, another branch of the library distributed a “grab and plant” kit for Asia-Pacific Heritage Month in May, which includes free seeds, planting instructions, recipes and more.
Many libraries also encourage patrons to use the seeds they receive to grow food for food banks. Webb and Bradley of the Mystic & Noank Library are urging customers with seed packs to plant an extra row to donate to their local food bank as part of the Connecticut Food Bank’s “Grow a Row for Hunger” program.
They are also considering planting a donation garden at the library, where everything grown will be donated to the food bank in addition to the children’s garden they already provide (which the authors volunteered).
The Jefferson Public Library’s Seed Library in Jefferson, Georgia, began operations in 2019 and has exploded in popularity since. The library’s nightly director and seed librarian, Elizabeth Jones, estimates the library served 35 people in 2019, more than 200 in 2020 and more than 300 in 2021. She expects to surpass that number this year.
When COVID closed the Jefferson Library, its librarians turned their attention to the library’s website, among other things, trying to make it a “one-stop place for gardening expertise,” Jones said.
Jones said the two main goals of the seed bank are to educate novice and experienced growers and to create a genetically diverse native seed bank that can adapt to the region despite climate change. In addition to providing seeds, the Jefferson Seed Bank offers programs on topics such as preserving and cleaning seeds, composting, and preserving food. It also hosts vegetable swaps and potlucks where customers can compare gardening notes.
While the Jones and Jefferson Public Libraries have focused on their sites during the COVID shutdown, other locations, including OPL and the University of San Francisco (USF) Seed Library, which began in 2014, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen and grow their seed books Hall. USF offers several different online courses and has helped lead class discussions about the global seed industry and found ways to mail seeds to interested parties.
“We want to reduce the barriers to growing food,” said Carol Spector, librarian at the USF Seed Library. “Sure, seeds aren’t expensive — but if they’re free and you can try it, it removes the risk.”
Open to students and staff, the USF Seed Library is a joint program between the school library and its Urban Agriculture Department. The collection contains 40 to 50 seed varieties housed in labeled coin envelopes, prioritizing organic, heirloom and culturally relevant seeds, with 20 to 30 types available at any given time depending on the season.
Over the years, the product has evolved 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 dorm windowsills.”
Urban farming program students are introduced to the library in class; library field trips involve discussions of how seed libraries protect heirloom seeds and cultural traditions and the decline of global seed genetic diversity.
The hope for USF and beyond is to help people begin to understand how individual growing food is connected to larger networks of production and consumption, with an eye toward improvement. “It’s a way for students to learn about the food system in a really engaging way,” Spector said.
• Public libraries make it easy to inspect seeds and plant gardens [Civil Eats]