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Public Libraries Are Making It Easy to Check Out Seeds—and Plant a Garden

At the public library in Mystic, Connecticut, a card catalog that formerly stored book due dates now holds endless packets of seeds. There’s eggplant and kale, marigolds and zinnias; more than 90 different types of seeds available for anyone with a card to take home and plant.

“The library has become so much more than just a place to come in and get books,” said Leslie Weber, the youth services associate at the Mystic & Noank Library. “It’s becoming a community center, and the seed library fits right into that. It gets people outside, gets children involved with gardening, and we’re pushing to address food insecurity with it.”

The seed library in Mystic is just one of a number that have sprouted up around the country over the last decade—including in Georgia, California, Colorado, Arizona, and Maine—as libraries turn to seeds to help them meet the daily needs of the communities they serve in new ways. By offering patrons free seeds, the libraries can also combat hunger insecurity and biodiversity loss—all while building community resilience.

Toddlers gardening at an Oakland Public Library branch. (Photo credit: Tina Aityan / OPL)

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

Seed sharing at public libraries date back to at least 2010, and while no one tracks just how such programs many there are across the, but it’s likely the number has now reached into the hundreds. Many started after the pandemic forced people outside and encouraged them to find ways to be more resilient, especially in how they procure food.

“This was something good that came out of COVID, because people gained a new appreciation for the outdoors,” said Mystic & Noank Library Director Christine Bradley. During the early part of the pandemic, she said, “We did all the children’s programming outdoors, we set up picnic tables, we started a children’s garden, and now we’re planning a whole library park. The seed library fits right in.”

The Give and Take

The César E. Chávez Branch of the OPL system was the first of the city’s 17 locations to start a seed library, in 2012, inspired by librarian Pete Villasenor, who saw one at the Potrero branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

“We love showing our patrons that it doesn’t have to be difficult to start their own gardens with the free seeds we offer here,” said Villasenor.

The seed lending library at the César E. Chávez branch of the Oakland Public Library. (Photo credit: Claire Johnson / OPL)

The seed lending library at the César E. Chávez branch of the Oakland Public Library. (Photo credit: Claire Johnson / OPL)

Over the years, more branches within the OPL system have added seed libraries—and after interest surged in 2020, OPL expanded its seed libraries to eight locations, with another expected to open soon.

While each public library seed collection works differently, most allow patrons to take a certain number of seeds whenever they want. Traditionally, people have been encouraged to contribute seeds in reciprocity, either when they buy too many or collect them in their gardens. However, that policy varies between states as some state laws prohibit specific labels or require testing of seeds.

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 roughly 10,000 seed packets to seed libraries, schools, educational programs, and community gardens. Of the more than 200 requests for seeds from more than 30 states and Canada this year, slightly more than half of those requests came from people at institutions that were just starting a seed library or had been seeing much more demand.

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

seeds in a bin at a seed library in oakland. (Photo credit: Doug Zimmerman / OPL)

(Photo credit: Doug Zimmerman / OPL)

Some libraries also purchase seeds to give away. “In general, it is a lot of work for librarians to regularly solicit donations and funding for the seeds,” said Rockwell, who says that keeping up with demand is nearly impossible. “Because the program is so popular and continues to expand, we are looking into identifying a consistent source of funding to buy seeds in a streamlined way instead of each library coordinating on their own [by] identifying donors.”

Beyond Seed Distribution

Some seed libraries go far beyond simply handing out seeds. Many have created community workshops, events, and other programming 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.

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