To be free of corporate control of our seeds, and thus our food supply, we need to freely trade and share our seeds with one another. What better way to do this than through public libraries? They’re located in almost every community and are always looking for ways to stay relevant to their patrons. Offered free to the public in present-day public libraries — besides books, magazines, and computer and Internet access — are restrooms, water fountains, lighted parking, and climate-controlled meeting rooms. Libraries also have regular hours, another important factor in making all of their resources, including seeds, accessible to the public.
A library already has a staff that can manage the day-to-day lending of seeds, a big plus in establishing a seed library. Having a seed library in a book library is definitely a learning experience, and the people who will learn the most are the staff. Unless they’re already gardeners, librarians don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of handling seeds. Books can sit on a shelf for very long periods of time and be no worse for wear. Seeds, however, are living things that lose their viability over time. Storage conditions can extend the life of the seeds or cause their demise. Because libraries are usually neither too hot nor too damp, their conditions are right for seeds. To extend seed life even longer, the seeds can be refrigerated during the off-season.
Generally, libraries also have “friends of the library” groups to raise funds and sponsor interesting programs. A person who volunteers through such a group has chosen to donate their time to fostering good works. If a seed library were to be started at a public library, these groups could be an important key to finding volunteers and funding. Such groups may not be the driving force to get your seed library off the ground, however, they’re good allies to have in the process. In early 2013, there were about 60 seed libraries in the United States. In early 2014, I identified 163. Currently, nearly 500 seed libraries are believed to be in operation across the country, and the number continues to grow.
Whether librarians or library group members are gardeners or not, they’re sure to recognize that making space for a seed library is the way of the future. Seed libraries are easily managed and require little space. Fortunately for the library, the mess and noise involved in seed saving happen away from the library. The library acts as the catalyst by distributing the seeds and providing books, classes, and other resources. Then, at the end of the season, the library is there to receive new seeds, setting the stage for the season to come.
A person whose passion is sparked by the very thought of a seed library needs to make it move forward, rather than someone who has been assigned the task but has little understanding of what’s involved. However, all those involved may have ideas that will contribute to the overall success. I first became aware that public libraries loan more than books and magazines when my college housemate brought home works of art to hang for a month in our apartment. Now, I’ve found that libraries loan lots of things: tools, toys, fishing poles, nature backpacks, telescopes, novelty cake pans, kitchen equipment, knitting needles, sewing machines, musical instruments, and seeds. A lending library collection of any of these items can be supported by speakers, demonstrations, and classes, along with related books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs. Libraries that evolve to suit their communities will keep their patrons coming back.
Seed libraries can inspire people who want to do things for their community but don’t know how to get started. Reading about plants and getting to know other people with similar interests is a great first step, especially for those whose garden ambitions are currently landless. A library could even host a seed club, or combine it with a garden club for the express purpose of learning more about seed saving and maintaining the seed library. It doesn’t even have to be a club — just a monthly meet-up at the library. A local food group could also meet at the library and take an interest in the seeds being offered, along with the library’s cookbooks. Using resources already available at the library, they can learn from each other. When people are passionate about something, they’re usually excited to share what they’ve learned.
Part of the Landscape
A seed library is a repository of seeds to lend, not a seed-growing operation. But, unless a library is located in a concrete jungle, there’s usually some open landscape around the building. Seed-producing plants can have a place there. Given any spot of land, a garden can develop.
The Carnegie Library in the heart of Pittsburgh has a garden in its front yard. The garden project and the seed library developed independently but simultaneously, which allowed a crossover of activities and ages. A teen program made salad dressings and soup with herbs from the garden, and patrons shared in the vegetable harvest. Some of the plants could have been let go to produce seeds. Growing plants for library visitors to watch the progression from seed to flower and back to seeds is wonderful.
Some libraries have more land available to turn into garden beds. The Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, New York, has a half-acre called the LibraryFarm. Patrons can “check out” a garden plot for the season in one half of the area. Anyone can work in the other half of the plot, with no other commitment. The food grown there goes to the food bank and to the garden helpers. Even a library with a tiny garden might get the ball rolling to turn other public spaces into gardens. Eventually, gardens will be everywhere. There have been communities planned from the beginning with the public areas dedicated as food-producing spaces. Can you imagine walking around your neighborhood, picking food wherever you find it? The Village Homes community in Davis, California, is one model to look to.
Not everything planted has to be food. We need all kinds of plants in our ecosystems. My specialty is growing food, but all sorts of seeds should be available in a seed library. It’s important to expand the diversity of your vegetable garden with flowers and herbs to create a balanced ecosystem. Including fruit is even better. Snacking on strawberries and grapes while you’re in the garden is a terrific experience.
Seed libraries go hand in hand with gardens, but working with seeds and developing gardens are both huge undertakings and are often developed as separate projects. The seed library at the Mountain View Public Library in California is fortunate there’s a garden at the fire station nearby: One of the seed library’s programs includes a walk to the edible garden at Mountain View Fire Station 1. The entire community benefits when local projects support each other. Imagine a garden at every fire and police station and every other available space, supported by resources from the library in the form of seeds, educational material, and programs!
Declaring Seed Independence
Mohandas Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi, said that one way for the Indian people to become free of British rule was to spin their own cotton. Cotton was a major product of India; however, Indians had to pay a high price for cotton cloth after the fiber had been sent to Britain to be spun and woven. Developing spinning and weaving industries in India was an important step toward independence. Gandhi wasn’t just satisfied that the people take control of their lives by spinning cotton; he said it was necessary to spin it in public. In fact, spinning fiber was such an important part of Indian independence that the design of the Indian flag includes a spinning wheel at its center.
Many parallels can be drawn between the Indian people’s push for political independence by spinning their own cotton and our achieving food independence through saving and sharing seeds. The danger of multinational corporations taking over our food and our lives is on the minds of many, and for good reason. Seed libraries are a way for us to bypass Monsanto and other such companies. Sharing seeds in public keeps the seeds in the public domain. Just as spinning cotton in public once was, seed sharing is an act of nonviolent protest. I believe it’s an important step in building a new food system — one where each of us plays an essential role. We already own public libraries; we support them with our taxes. These institutions exist to encourage learning, and learning allows us to take control of our own lives. Public libraries are the ideal institution to take on a major role in the new community food systems that are being developed everywhere.
Cindy Conner is a permaculture educator, founder of Homeplace Earth, and the producer of two popular instructional DVDs on sustainable gardening. This is an excerpt from her book, Seed Libraries