This article was spurred by myriad questions asked in LibraryLand these days: how can libraries meet their community needs? How can we show our value to our communities? How can we get in on this MakerSpace trend? What value do we offer in the Google Age?
Librarians are challenged to find effective, realistic, appropriate answers to these questions. This week we speak with a librarian and patron about the way the Somers Library in Somers, NY is trying to answer all of those questions and more through a unique resource: The Somers Seed Lending Library. theoutreachlibrarian spoke with Valerie Herman and Susan Polos. Valerie has served as the Reference Librarian at Somers Librarian at Somers Library since 2008. Susan is a substitute librarian at Somers Library and her full-time position is school library media specialist at Mount Kisco Elementary School, part of the Bedford Central School District. Susan is a seed library patron.
For those not in the know, can you describe the seed collection briefly: what’s it in and how does it work? Where do patrons check them out from?
Valerie: The Somers Seed Lending Library is a free community heirloom seed lending project, demonstrating that libraries check out more than books. The idea is simple. Growers get seeds from the seed catalog in the library, and record what seeds they ‘borrow’. They then grow their plants, and at the end of the growing season, harvest seeds from those plants and return them to the Seed Library for people to borrow during the next growing season (typically 2-3 times what was originally borrowed.
Susan: I noticed it while I was substituting at the reference desk and was so impressed. I am a patron of the Westchester Library System as well as a sometimes employee, so I borrowed some sunflower seeds. I was intrigued.
How did the seed collection come into being? Who proposed it, did it require funding, from where did funding come?
Valerie: This year, I had read numerous articles about Seed Lending Libraries (including a piece done on NPR), and thought it was something we could do in our library. I proposed it to my director and Friends; our Friend Group funded the initial purchase of seeds, and a library co-worker’s husband built the actual seed catalog. Much publicity was done – online (social media), email blasts, and in the newspapers.
Susan: Valerie is amazing. She is on the cutting edge of library services.
How did you build consensus around creating this collection?
Valerie: The proposal for this project was interesting enough that my director and our Friends Group immediately saw the benefit of offering this to the community and agreed to let us proceed with the project. Another interesting thing we offer – we have cake pans for the public to borrow.
What were the biggest challenges in creating and maintaining the collection? What have been successes?
Susan: I was concerned about being sure the seeds I borrowed would actually grow to fruition. What if the plant died? Yikes! It seemed like it would be tantamount to losing an out-of-print book!
Valerie: Challenges to creating and maintaining the collection include,
* Deciding what varieties to offer (and levels of difficulty in growing those seeds)
* Deciding how much to let people borrow. Our first ‘borrower’ took seeds for an entire garden. We want people to be able to try growing heirloom vegetables and decided to limit people taking seeds to 5-6 plants per seed variety.
* It was quite time-consuming to prepare all of the paperwork (forms, handouts, etc.). Luckily we planned ahead for this in advance of the growing season.
* Each year we will ask our Friends Group to provide additional funding to supplement the variety of seeds offered in the catalog. We also hope people will donate packets of heirloom seeds to help us grow that collection.
Any advice for those thinking of hosting a seed collection?
Valerie: Do your homework first. Research current Seed Lending Libraries such as RichmondGrows.org and see how it works, including reading any pamphlets, etc. Contact them to see what works, etc. Decide on the level of difficulty for growing varieties of plants you want to offer. We pretty much offered easy-to-grow varieties. Also think about whether or not you want to stick with heirloom seeds, or any seed varieties. We decided to stay with heirloom seeds solely. We also hosted as program presented by a Master Gardener on Seed Saving basics to help people learn how to save seeds.
Why are seed collections a good idea for libraries?
Valerie: Even though we are a small library, we always try to think of new ideas and unique ways to serve our community. We offer more than just books. At our library, patrons can borrow decorative cake pans, or volt meters. We want to stay relevant to our community.
Susan: Offering seeds is a way to bring a community together. The seed collection can also be seen as part of the current trend of “Makerspaces” – a way to engage citizens who want to be hands-on, engaged and actively learning.
I love knowing my sunflowers are part of a larger fabric, part of a growing collection that I am taking from and then contributing to. I really appreciate the innovative and imaginative ways that Somers Library meets the needs of the community – even sometimes before the community recognizes the needs!