Starting a Seed Library

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An old card catalog is the perfect place to store seeds and is easily attainable if your seed library is partnered with the public library in your community.
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A seed library is a tool that promotes community building by arming community members with the tools they need to grow their own food and more. Many seed libraries partner with public libraries where they can take advantage of old card catalogs and have a central location in the community.
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"Seed Libraries" by Cindy Conner is the ultimate resource for seeds and starting a seed library. Once a seed library has been started, members replenish the seeds so the library can last for years to come.

The mission statement of Seed Libraries (New Society Publishers, 2014) by Cindy Conner is to introduce a movement that keeps seeds in the hands of the people while revitalizing public libraries and communities. Seed libraries preserve and protect the genetic diversity of a harvest by keeping the seeds in the community. The members of the seed library will bring their own seeds back to the library to share with the rest of the members.   

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Seed Libraries

The first thing I suggest doing to get your seed library going is to involve others. Talk to other people and give them information to read or sources to look into. Often all it takes is a magazine article or a news broadcast to spark somebody’s interest. If your endeavor is a project of a Transition or Permaculture group, you may already have people prepared to move forward with you. If you are a librarian in a public library, help from beyond the library would benefit you greatly. If you are not a librarian and intend for your seed library to be located in a public library, now is the time to bring one on board.

Seed libraries could have a committee to support the project. Other names for this group might be team or advisory board — whichever suits you the best. Not all committee members will be the ones to source seed or physically do anything, but they will be the ones who will get the word out to others who need to know. Also, they may be the ones tied to funding. You might find people for your committee already involved in food and nutrition endeavors or community gardens. It is good to have people in the mainstream as well as creative thinkers on your committees; they may approach projects with different views that can be helpful. Someone with an art talent who is willing to share their skills is a plus to have in your group, as well as someone with computer and social media skills.

A representative from your county Master Gardener program can be your link to acquiring volunteers when you need seeds sorted, tested, or packed. The same goes for having a representative from Scouts, 4-H, and any other local organization with a group of potential volunteers. A representative from your local farmers market could be your link to people who are already saving seeds. Religious groups with a penchant for service may like to be involved. Even if you don’t establish a formal committee, a gathering of people such as this in your community early on, to let them know of your intentions, would be a step in the right direction.

Mission Statement and Name

You will need a mission statement. This will be the guide for all the actions that follow and serve to let others outside your circle know what you are about. From the beginning, decide if your main goal is to distribute seeds only or to distribute seeds and have the recipients save what they’ve grown and donate them back. If the latter is the case (which it usually is), you will need to have an education component to your mission. Although many people are gardeners, few may have saved seed before in a way that would be beneficial for your library. If you are only concerned with distributing seeds, you will need to plan for a continual source of seeds. Seed companies have programs to help seed libraries get started, but I can’t imagine they would be willing to send you seeds every year.

Maybe your mission is to develop a local resource for seeds specific to your area. There may already be seed savers in your area who would love to donate seeds to your library and possibly come to a program to talk about it. The stories connected to the seeds are an important part of saving our cultural heritage. Some of the local seed savers most likely are getting on up in years, so the sooner you find them, the better chance you have of collecting seed from them to save for your community.

Here is a list of some of the things that seed libraries have included in their mission statements:
• Increase library usage and community involvement (public library)
• Develop a network of skilled seed stewards
• Educate members in ways to save seed
• Reclaim seed as a public resource
• Have safe alternatives to GMOs
• Develop a source of open pollinated seeds that are specific to the locality
• Contribute to and support community gardeners
• Conserve endangered varieties of seed
• Foster a community of resilience and self-reliance
• Support genetic diversity and community sovereignty
• Transmission of knowledge from one generation to another through stories
• Empower members through a deeper connection with nature
• Preserve seed as a sacred trust
• Reflect all cultural diversity of the city
• Serve underserved populations
• Collective action to build a sustainable community food system
• Prevent hunger
• Promote a healthy diet
• Help low income households afford nutritious food
• Restore indigenous varieties of seed

Once you have your mission defined, choose a name. If your project is part of a larger organization, such as a public library, museum, or community group, the name you choose could include the name of that organization to clarify the connection. The name would also include your activity with seeds. Some choices are seed library, seed lending library, living seed library, seed share, and seed exchange. Knowing what your mission is will help you choose a name.

The Goochland Community Seed Lending Library began as the J. Sargeant Reynolds Community Seed Lending Library at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Goochland, Virginia. A year after the seed library was established, the college began the transition to shorten its name to Reynolds Community College. In order to better reflect the fact that the seed library was open to all community members, not just those associated with the college, the name of the seed library was changed to the Goochland Community Seed Lending Library. Don’t hesitate to make changes when it is warranted.

Budget and Funding

The amount of money you need to begin your project will depend on how you go about it. If your seeds are donated to begin with, and you quickly develop a group of seed stewards to keep the seeds coming in, seeds are not a cost. On the other hand, you might want to begin your project with certain varieties that you have bought fresh — packed for the current year — to ensure your success. That will be a cost that you can calculate from reading seed catalogs. If you are located in a public library, the supplies for setting up the seed sharing, such as envelopes, notebook, labels, and such could come out of the library’s general operating fund. If you are not part of a public library or a similar institution, that cost might be coming from someone’s pocket. 

How the seeds are stored and distributed will determine how much money is needed to start. Look around for any available cabinets and storage containers; otherwise, you will need to acquire some. A public library may already have books and videos on seed saving, or they may be willing to obtain them through their normal acquisitions. Even if your seed project is not located in a public library, the resources there will still be a valuable asset to educating your members. Acquiring speakers, which is always a good thing, may involve honorariums (unless you know qualified individuals who will speak for free or who need to accrue volunteer hours to fulfill a requirement). Be respectful of someone’s hard-earned expertise and plan on honorariums where warranted. Having refreshments at gatherings should be considered in your budget. Whether it is for a launch party to begin your seed library or a lunch party for seed volunteers throughout the year, food is always welcome. Of course, food could be provided by potluck donations brought by the participants for these events. 

To provide needed funds, you could solicit donations. It may be easier to obtain monetary donations if the gifts are tax deductible. For that, you would need to be registered as a nonprofit organization or be under the umbrella of one. Personally, I always hate to be involved in activities that ask people for money. Bake sales are good ways to earn some up-front cash. Granted, you are asking people to not only bake something, but also purchase the ingredients to do so, but somehow it translates differently to me than just passing the hat. Maybe if you suggest a bake sale, the non-bakers in the group will say to just pass the hat. People who would not notice you otherwise, will stop and buy something at a bake sale. Bake sales can be combined with yard sales. Yard sales are great because they promote reusing things. Supporters can clean their houses and garages and donate unneeded items to be sold for the cause. If you have a yard sale, also have a plan for what you are going to do with the leftovers. Large thrift stores may send a truck to collect what is left at the end of the day if you schedule that ahead of time. A plant sale to benefit a seed library is also a possibility. Gardeners will both donate and buy plants; plus, you’ll be bringing the seed library to their attention. Any of these activities could be combined with a public library’s regularly scheduled book sale.

An art and/or a craft show could generate needed funds either by artists and crafters paying for a booth or donating items to be sold for the benefit of the seed library. A silent auction at a potluck event, concert, or whatever other event you think up, could bring in some money. In a silent auction, donated items can be set out with suggested minimum bids on a paper for each entry. People have an opportunity to write down their bids up to the cut-off time. Any activity that involves people coming together is a newsworthy event and good publicity for your seed library.

I’m most familiar with the activities I’ve just mentioned and less familiar with acquiring funding from grants. If it is grant money you are after, having someone on your committee who has experience working with grants is a definite bonus. Some of the seed libraries that I’ve researched had grant money to get their project going. One of these grant sources is the US Institute of Museum and Library Services, but there are many others. Begin to notice any projects that list their grant sources, and make a note of them. There are many community groups that would donate to a seed library if its mission fell within the parameters of the mission of the group. You might keep that in mind when crafting your mission statement. Organizations with a gardening or conservation background are likely sources, but with the current concern for health, particularly anything that promotes combating obesity and diabetes, the field expands. Gardening certainly promotes health in the form of exercise, being outside, and eating more vegetables.

A seed library can be tacked onto another project, which is what happened at the Pittsburgh Seed and Story Library. A grant was awarded for a gardening program at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh at the same time the seed library was being established.

I have known people who feel they can’t start a project without a grant, and through my sustainable agriculture activities I have attended many programs funded by grants. Some great things were being done, but only for as long as the initiative was funded. Grants do tend to bring publicity with them, which is a plus for a project. My reservation about depending on this support is that you can’t be sure how long you will have it. Sure, you have the initial award, and if you structure your project with the understanding that you won’t need more money to continue, you will be fine. When the economy falters, which it is prone to do, grant money is one of the first things that disappears. If the grant pays an intern to establish the seed library, what are the plans for after the intern leaves?

Years ago, I volunteered on the garden committee at my children’s elementary school. The teacher who initiated the project was awarded a $1,000 grant at the beginning. It was spent on tools, educational materials, refreshments when the teachers met for garden meetings, and whatever else was necessary to get the program started. The garden committee had a plant sale every year when the school had its “Spring Fling” and earned enough money to cover ongoing expenses for the garden after that. Most of the plants for the sale were donated by the committee members (myself and a few teachers) and some parents. Many were perennials that we needed to divide anyway. When I left after four years, the garden committee had more than the original grant amount at their disposal, with the plant sale being their only fundraiser.

Define the Space

Space needs to be available for the seeds and for recordkeeping. The seeds may already be in packets for patrons to take. This involves more work to prepare ahead, putting the allotted seeds in each envelope and labeling them. On the other hand, if the seeds are going to be available in bulk, with the patrons helping themselves (hopefully, according to the suggested guidelines that you have developed!), a space for containers, envelopes, labels, and pens needs to be available. Patrons usually record in a notebook what they have taken. Some libraries have a barcode on each seed packet; patrons “check out” their seeds at the main desk, just like books are checked out.

One of the fun things happening at seed libraries is the recycling of now-antiquated card catalogs; many libraries still have them in storage, and they are perfect for holding packets of seed. The Washington County Seed Savers Library in Abingdon, Virginia, received a card catalog from a retired librarian who had it in her basement. It was painted by a local artist. You will find a photo of that cabinet in the color section. Lacking an old card catalog, storage cabinets for CDs work well to hold the seed packets. That is what is used at the Goochland Community Seed Lending Library in Goochland, Virginia. A shelf or two to hold jars of seeds and boxes of seed packets would suffice, also. If the patron needs to fill his or her own seed envelopes and to record in a notebook, a small table and chair are necessary. Books on gardening and seed saving should be nearby. Resource material in the form of brochures, pamphlets, and booklets could be stored in binders or a filing cabinet. A small display of these resources may point the way to the whole collection.

Locate the seeds where it is convenient for both staff and patrons. As with the books, patrons will be browsing the offerings. A location near the door gives visibility to the seed program, but good signage will give it visibility in other locations, as well. The staff should be able to monitor it easily to make sure children are not playing with the seeds. Although most seed patrons will abide by the guidelines that have been established, I have heard stories of the occasional patron who helped themselves to more than their share of seeds. All library staff should be trained to keep an eye out to prevent that from happening. If the seeds are in a small cabinet, it may be located on top of a bookcase already in the library. All in all, the seeds and everything that goes with them should fit in the space of a computer or study carrel — or two. Envelopes, labels, and pens can be stored in a drawer of the seed cabinet.

Website and Social Media

I can’t stress enough the importance of having a webpage and social media outlets for your seed library. Otherwise, how will people know you are there? As soon as you are online, you can join the Sister Seed Library list. Actually, you can be listed even if you have no web presence, but if people are trying to find you they will need contact information. If someone heard about seed libraries and wondered if there was one in their community, they could quickly find you on the list. If you are starting a seed library, taking a look at what others are doing is helpful. Please keep this in mind when you are setting up your Internet site(s). Knowing that others outside your community will be looking at what you are doing should encourage you to make your location clear. Include the name of your town or community and your state or province.

Your seed library website may be a page on the website for the public library, farmers market, or other organization. That might dictate what can be included and in what format, so make sure you are versed on any guidelines that need to be followed. I have looked at many seed library web pages. It is apparent that some are on government websites. I don’t know if they are permitted to spice their pages up a bit with some graphics or photos, but it would certainly help. One of the most pleasant seed library websites I came across is for the Concord Seed Lending Library located at the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts. This seed library was begun in 2013. Their logo is a seedling coming out of an open book. Nice!

A website should give information about your seed library and also give links to information from other sources. Many places are sharing information about saving seeds, and your website can both participate in the sharing and benefit from what others have shared. The Concord Seed Lending Library has pages labeled home, hours and directions, resources, donors and supporters, events, and about us. Look at many seed library websites and note what elements you would like to include in yours. Your website can be the base of operations for your seed library, with everything a patron needs to know to access seeds.

Putting your seed library on Facebook is something to consider. I found that, if they had only one, seed libraries were more likely to have a Facebook page, rather than a website. Many had both a Facebook page and a website. A Facebook page is simple to set up and there is no cost. Put as much background information as you can on the about page on Facebook, including your location, with state or province. It should be a public page meant for an organization, rather than a personal page. Even people without a Facebook account can access a public page. People trying to find you shouldn’t have to log into Facebook first.

The advantages of Facebook are that it is free, fast and easy to set up, and a message can easily be sent to followers. You need a Facebook account to become a follower, though. The disadvantages are that people get so many Facebook messages that, if they don’t check them frequently, they can miss some messages. If that happens with your message, it is not easily retrieved unless the follower actually goes to the organization’s Facebook page. Keep in mind that not everyone looks at Facebook.

Blogging platforms, such as WordPress and Blogger, are free. They could act like a website, but are used mainly for posting messages. The messages are archived for easy retrieval; either by month, subject, or popularity. I have a WordPress blog at Homeplace Earth. My posts are educational — mini-lectures, actually — and are always accompanied by photos to illustrate what I’m talking about. There are many ways people can receive my new blog posts. They can sign up to have it come by email so that whenever I send a post, it will come into their inbox. There are a number of other feed options that those of you more digitally enlightened than me would know about. A blog post won’t get so lost in the digital mail as a Facebook post might. Every time I have a new blog post, I link it to a new message on my Homeplace Earth Facebook page.

A picture says a thousand words and brightens a page, making it more interesting. Use photos in all of these online venues. Having a place such as a website, blog, or Facebook page that needs pictures regularly will encourage you to document all aspects of your seed library in photos. That has been the case for me in my work documenting what I do in the garden. Note what you like about the photos on other websites/blogs/Facebook pages when deciding what to display on yours. Taking photos will help you personally focus on the subject at hand. If you use photos that someone else has taken, make sure you have permission to use them, and credit the photographer. If you use photos in which people can be identified, make sure you have their permission to use their likeness.

Graphics

A logo gives your project a recognizable identity. This is where the artists in your group will come in handy. You can use the logo when establishing your Internet presence and for brochures and signs. Take your time in starting your seed library, encouraging people to begin saving seeds of the open pollinated crops they are already growing, if the season permits. During that time of planning and deciding how best to proceed, the logo can be used on any notices or correspondence so it will be familiar when your seed library is ready to open.

The logo used by the Washington County Seed Savers Library is a colorful one — a basket tipping over with colorful vegetables spilling out — but it looks good in black and white, also. It is used on their brochure, signs, and website. The website was designed by the marketing and development officer for the library. The graphic work for posters and brochures was paid for by the Raymon Grace Foundation. Not every seed library has a marketing and development officer at their disposal, but artistic people are everywhere. Sometimes they just need some encouragement to show their talents. You could sponsor a contest to find an appropriate logo. This would be a good thing to do to help spread the word while you are still in the planning stages.

The artists you gather to design your logo will likely have ideas about other uses for their talents. A brochure printed on regular copier paper and folded in thirds is easier to take away than a full size sheet of paper. It should contain the information you most want your patrons to know. Identify your volunteers who have graphic design experience and ask them to help with this. If you don’t have anyone with graphic design talents, put the word out to recruit someone. Some brochures include seed saving directions, such as the brochure for the Seed Library of the Pima County Public Library in Tucson, Arizona.

Any graphics that are developed will be useful on your signs. You will need a sign to show patrons where the seeds are stored. It could be located on the seed cabinet or shelf, but a sign overhead can be seen from a distance to draw patrons to the location. You will also need notices to advertise the speakers and other events that will be involved with the seed library.

Education

If saving seeds were a common skill, you would not have to worry about providing education; but since that’s not the case, your patrons will need help if they are to bring back viable seeds that are true to their variety. A public library has the benefit of being in the business of providing resource material. If your library doesn’t already have books on seed saving, make a suggestion to the librarian in charge of acquisitions. Be on the lookout for new ones as they are published. A list of websites with seed saving information should be made available in the library and on any of your seed library websites or blogs.

Print and web resources are a great start, but nothing compares to hands-on experience. Plan to have presentations, demonstrations, and workshops about seed saving. Your educational initiative could begin with programs that bring patrons to the realization that saving seeds is an important thing to do. They can learn exactly how to do that later in the season. For Amanda West Montgomery (Pittsburgh Seed and Story Library), it was watching the movie The Future of Food that woke her up to the necessity of action. A showing of that movie or SEED: The Untold Story would be a good way to begin your awareness campaign. Another good one to show is Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds. A video screening could be combined with follow-up discussions, demonstrations, or food tastings.

Identify the committee members in your group who are most suited to provide educational programs or to arrange for them. Make the best use of all the talents of those involved. If necessary, seek out more people with the talents you are in need of. A movie night could be a way to identify people interested in joining your effort to establish a seed library.

More from Seed Libraries:

All About Garden Seeds


Reprinted with permission from Seed Libraries by Cindy Conner and published by New Society, 2014. Buy this book from our store:Seed Libraries

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