The Making of the Mass Aggie Seed Library: A Gardening How-to for Others

By Paulina Borrego
Science & Engineering Librarian
University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Seed Libraries have been sprouting up in public libraries across the country, but what about a seed library in an academic library? Is such an idea in line with the mission of the library or even a viable option?

A seed library offers excellent opportunities to highlight University strategic plans and connect with academic departments and extension services, along with student and community groups. What follows is the story of the Mass Aggie Seed Library, how it came about, lessons learned, and steps to set up a seed library within an academic library.

Background: How it took root and grew

Gabriella Bosco wanted to start a seed library. Gabriella had seen a seed library at a community college in Florida and wanted to share her love of seeds, gardening, and sustainability.  As an undergraduate biology student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she came to the University Libraries and approached two librarians, Madeleine Charney and myself, about this possibility. The Science and Engineering Library was the best option, so Gabriella and I worked together to explore the project.

Gabriella and I met weekly in the fall of 2018 and, by April 2019 had the Mass Aggie Seed Library entirely up and running.  At its core was the vision of creating a space within the Science and Engineering Library that welcomed not only students but staff and community members as well.  Gabriella, passionate about focusing on organic, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, searched for local sources to supply seed donations.

Most seed libraries fail due to the low rate of seed returned after harvest. Unlike typical library loans, seeds ‘on loan’ from a seed library are not returned but are replaced with the seeds from the next generation by the patron. This is a vital component of the long-term sustainability of the project.  Knowing this pitfall, we contacted and visited other local seed libraries while also considering campus organizations to help with seed saving efforts. Soon, partnering with Daniel Bensonoff, Sustainability Coordinator of Campus Gardens, brought the project another level of excitement, commitment, and opportunity for outreach.

With many decisions to be made, Gabriella and I, both trained scientists, went forward with the mindset that variables could be adapted along the way. This allowed us the freedom to experiment and grow the experience, coupled with user experience and data. What resulted is a space unique to the Science and Engineering Library that is taking root and evolving in response to the community. One year from the initial meeting, we are expanding the mission of the Mass Aggie Seed Library to include exhibits that focus and draw upon local natural history collections, botanical prints, and artists who are passionate about plants, seeds, and sustainability efforts. We also added some tools to enable borrowers to support seed saving efforts, and we hope to offer workshops and to extend invitations to speakers.

people, logo, and supplies

Timeline from germination to blossom: Points to consider: A gardening how-to

  • Garden planning: Create a vision and attitude in line with your goals

Knowing the reason for starting a seed library will inform the entire project. At every juncture or question, the core vision guides the decision-making process, defraying needless fret and distraction. What is the purpose of the seed library? Possible goals may be to establish a library community garden, to provide a community engagement project, or to connect with a local sustainability initiative. Whatever the goal, use this as a guiding principle throughout the project.

Not knowing what to expect, we had the goal of educating people about seeds, seed saving efforts, and sustainability. Adopting an attitude of experimentation has made the space fun and responsive to patron use, and this attitude allows us to continually evolve. Not being burdened with preconceived ideas, combined with a sense of play, allows for easy set-up and a change-of-plans style.

  • Trellising: Decide on the level of technology devoted to the project

The level of technology dedicated to the project will have a significant impact on the time required to set up and maintain the library. Choices made by answering questions related to the organization and tracking of the inventory and its use will impact the amount of time required both daily and seasonally. Because something can be done does not mean it should be done. Does the project require tracking of seed inventory and use? If not, let it go and focus on just keeping the seed stocked and up to date. Does your library want some statistics related to the tracking of seed loans and use of the space? If so, then some tracking systems will be needed.

The Mass Aggie Seed Library consciously decided to go low-tech, almost no-tech, due to the freedom this approach allowed. I visited two local seed library projects housed in academic libraries that took the time to catalog and track each seed packet. This option was investigated with the catalogers at UMass Amherst, and we quickly decided this was too time-intensive and ultimately not in line with the goals or needs of the project. To provide computer-based searching, Gabriella created a spreadsheet of donated seed packets and made it available on a computer in the space. A print copy of the spreadsheet was placed in a binder for patrons. Patrons are asked to enter seed loans in the binder to track usage and for inventory purposes. Most patrons enjoy searching through the labeled seed card catalog drawers rather than using the spreadsheet. In keeping with the experimental attitude of the space, we have plans to remove the computer due to underuse, maintaining the low-tech nature of the project.

Seed loan envelopes are provided to patrons to ‘borrow’ the seed, each branded with a rubber-stamped seal designed by Gabriella. Another way the low-tech and sustainable goal came into play was by deciding to brand and stamp the envelopes with a color-coded soy-based ink instead of having the seed envelopes printed.

  • Test the soil: Visit other seed libraries or chat with other seed librarians for advice

Nothing takes the place of visiting other seed libraries in person and talking to the people who created the space. Having the opportunity to interact with other seed libraries will help envision how and if the project will translate to your area, and if not, why not.  Engaging in dialogue with other creators and hearing their stories is incredibly valuable.  While some initial information can be gleaned from a website or brochure, the behind-the-scenes why’s and how’s will help you deal with, anticipate, and integrate your unique variables and opportunities.

  • Grow where you are planted: Use what you have

Each plot of land brings its own singular conditions of soil structure, exposure to sunlight, and protection from the elements. Much like this, each library has its own obstacles and opportunities. Instead of wishing obstacles away or being frustrated by what you may or may not have, grow where you are planted. Be open to growing where you are and taking advantage of those unique opportunities in the present time.

The only space available in the Science and Engineering Library was a narrow unused corridor. Though it had too much sunlight and too much heat for proper long-term seed saving, without any alternative space available, and accepting a short-term seed storage of two years maximum, Gabriella and I decided to move forward and make the most of the space.  The corridor was painted Greenery (Pantone 2017 color of the year) and we searched for items that could be repurposed from the library’s basement. A wooden shelf list card catalog, which was no longer needed, was cleaned up and repaired by a volunteer and now holds the varieties of seeds in envelopes. An atlas case holds the seed check-out binder on its slanted top with seed books on the lower shelves. A locked cabinet in the space houses all items that may be needed along with extra seed packets. The cast-off items were perfectly-imperfect, in line with the philosophy of sustainability, “grow where you are planted,” and the permaculture ideal of “the problem is the solution.” While in no way ideal, the space makes the best use of where it is and what it has to offer, changing with patron comments and use.

how an empty corridor was transformed

  • Companion planting: Determine if you will offer items besides seeds for loan

At some point, one may decide to bring in other items for loan or use. A variety of seed saving equipment is available for purchase. Some libraries may want to partner with tool libraries. Behind all of this is the question of who will clean and maintain such items. Other options include housing playful items to draw patrons into the space, such as puzzles, display cases, and corkboards for messaging.

The Mass Aggie Seed Library ordered books on seed saving techniques, gardening movies, and gardening company catalogs. These were supplemented with books about sustainable gardening practices and DVDs from the general collection of the Science and Engineering Library. Seed cleaning screens from commercial vendors are also available in the hope that at the end of the growing season, seeds from the next generation will be returned.

A collection of donated gardening magazines is available for the taking as well as a group of donated gardening catalogs. Most notable is the array of outreach materials related to sustainability efforts on campus that are accessible in the seed library. These services, available on campus and locally, make patrons aware of initiatives and help build community and strengthen budding connections.

  • Partnerships: Opportunities for growth

Bringing in partners helps lessen the load and offers opportunities for growth. For example, seed libraries may want to partner with local businesses that can supply materials for loan to community gardeners (pruners, soil pH kits, etc.). Teaming up with a local group to help with the upkeep of the seed inventory is a win-win scenario. No matter the group, make sure to communicate goals and expectations clearly, and write a memo of understanding to avoid issues that may arise such as life-cycle of materials, the replacement for damaged items, hours of volunteer work, or attribution of partnerships.

Gabriella and I knew that without actively advocating for the return of the next generation’s seed from borrowers, the Mass Aggie Seed Library would be unsustainable, especially in the early stages. From the initial batch of seed to be “loaned,” planted and harvested, and finally returned for the next season, finding partners for seed will be essential. As the Mass Aggie Seed Library takes root, we are continually reaching out and making connections in the local community with this need in mind.

  • Weeding: Making a plan for upkeep

Keeping the seed library space inviting and fresh with ideas for each phase of the growing season will help attract patrons to the space and keep them coming back. Daily re-stocking, especially during the seed starting and planting season, requires careful planning. A regular routine of library procedures is important for maintenance of the space and collection. Consider questions such as: Will this become part of a daily walk-through each day, and will one person be charged with this responsibility or should the responsibility be shared? How will the seed stock be updated during the busy planting season? How will patrons learn of inventory? Weeds, or lack of attention, can be the death of a seed library, so plan ahead.

I check the seed library as a part of my daily routine each morning. I make sure the area is tidy while looking to see what seeds have been checked out, re-stocking seed packets as necessary. I continually replenish the take-away items from the supply of free items, including Mass Aggie Seed Library stickers of all varieties, education materials, and brochures. Favorite among these duties is noting the progress of the seed-themed jigsaw puzzle that has become popular with students.

more pictures from the seed library

  • If a flower blooms in the garden, does anyone see it? Attracting patrons to the seed library

How will you let people know about the seed library? Is a marketing plan necessary? What about branding? Will there be a kick-off event? Will there be events tied to each cycle of the growing season? Taking the time to circle back to the goal of the seed library will help clarify a plan for communication and outreach.

Gabriella and I knew that getting the word out on a campus of 35,000 students would not be easy. And since most students live in dorms on campus with few gardening opportunities, getting the word out to the broader university and off-campus community was crucial for success. Gabriella created a stylish logo, while I, a patent and trademark librarian familiar with the importance of trademarks, wanted to name the seed library something in line with the agricultural history of the University. Hence, the Mass Aggie Seed Library was born. A visual artist with the library’s communications team, Leslie Schaler, incorporated Gabriella’s logo into a colorful postcard image of vintage seed packets. We branded this logo onto everything from stickers to coasters for seed library outreach. The Mass Aggie Seed Library hosted a kick-off open-house event in April, just in time for seed sowing in the New England planting season.

  • The cycle of life: Letting go and re-seeding

Some plants thrive, while others never take off no matter how hard you try. Experienced gardeners know this to be true. At some point, one must decide not to fight Mother Nature but listen to her wisdom. In libraries, we all want experimentation but are sometimes reluctant to let go of good ideas that never fully root. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate, re-group, and revise the seed library. Allow it evolve and grow with each cycle of the season in response to its environment and patron use. Some things work, and some things don’t. Put those ideas that did not work aside and save them for a time when conditions may be just right. Learn from the principles of permaculture. Don’t fight Mother Nature. Be resilient in spirit and generosity.

Currently we are getting ready for our first artist exhibit housed in the seed library. Picture molding has been installed and a display case from a local department store is being restored to house exhibit items. With an attitude of experimentation and play, Gabriella and I are looking forward to whatever the future brings for the Mass Aggie Seed Library, knowing we are not architects for its future, but only stewards during this period of time.

seed library catalog, puzzles, pamphlets

Suggested Reading

Alger, A., Jonkel, E., & Bray, H. (2014). Seed libraries in sustainable communities. PNLA Quarterly, 79(1), 25-31.

Borrow, plant and share seeds with the new heirloom seed library. (2015). Unabashed Librarian, (175), 10-10.

Chant, I. (2014). Q&A: Jolene reid: Seed library takes root. Library Journal, 139(8), 13-13.

Helfferich, D. (2012). Seed libraries: Seed-sharing on a community level. Agroborealis, 42(1), 49-55.

Ingalls, D. (2017). Breaking new ground: The case for seed libraries in the academic library. Public Services Quarterly, 13(2), 78-89. doi:10.1080/15228959.2017.1304315

Kimble-Evans, A. (2011). Checking out seed libraries. Organic Gardening, 58(4), 70-70.

Landgraf, G. (2015). Not your GARDEN-VARIETY library. American Libraries, 46(1/2), 58-62.

Miller, P., Herman, V., & Ferretti, T. (2014). Seed library. Journal of the Leadership & Management Section, 11(1), 41-42.

Musser, B. (2014). Seed lending libraries: Teaching moments in botany and horticulture. Council on Botanical & Horticultural Libraries Newsletter, (135), 14-15.

A new way to grow a library. (2012). inCite, 33(12), 16-16.

Peekhaus, W. (2018). Seed libraries: Sowing the seeds for community and public library resilience. Library Quarterly, 88(3), 271-285. doi:10.1086/697706

Seed-sharing snafu. (2015). Mother Earth News, (269), 4-4.

Weak, E. (2014). Simple steps to starting a seed library. Public Libraries, 53(4), 24-26.

Witman, S. (2019). I grow seed libraries. Popular Science, 291(2), 112-112.


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