A John Deere Publication
Person smiling with plant seedling in black plastic flat standing in a greenhouse

Julie Kent, director of the Erie City Public Library, established a seed library to combat food insecurity in her Kansas community of 1,443 residents. A majority of students qualify for free and reduced school lunches.

Agriculture, Education   March 01, 2024

Seed Libraries Take Root


Seed sharing is alive and thriving at your local library.

On a shelf along the north wall of the public library in Erie, Kansas, hundreds of packets of garden seeds lay in baskets, free for the taking.

They are part of the community's "seed library," a place where residents can eliminate the barrier of growing one's own food by taking as many as 5 packets of garden seeds per visit.

To Julie Kent, director of the Erie City Public Library, the annual offering of seeds provides an overlooked service to this southeast Kansas community. According to the 2022 U.S. Census, Erie has 1,443 citizens, nearly 18% of which live in poverty. Sixty percent of the children in Neosho County are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Kent sensed a community need.

"These seeds are $5 per package to buy in a store," she says. "For people who are poor, seeds are expensive."

Community support. Seed libraries have steadily grown in popularity since the 2000s, and in 2019 the American Library Association declared sustainability should be a core value of libraries. As such, the resources serve several purposes in communities that support them.

Users are encouraged to save seeds at harvest, and bring them back to the library for sorting and repackaging next year. They foster a sense of community when participating libraries host plant swaps, at which community members often exchange surplus fruits, vegetables or flowers.

And foremost, there is the satisfaction of—and need for, in the case of some families—growing plants and producing food at home.

As of 2023, the Seed Library Network counts more than 2,000 seed-lending libraries in 48 states and 15 countries, many of which are a function of public libraries in communities of all sizes.

In Tucson, Arizona, the Pima County Public Library aims to encourage residents to learn about and enjoy gardening, plus build a collection of seeds adapted to the desert environment.

In Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburg offers free seeds to library card-holding patrons, and five branches offer a host of gardening education resources, including hands-on workshops and seed swaps.

The seed library at the Iola Public Library in Iola, Kansas, provided seeds that a local gardener used when establishing her fresh-cut flower business.

And in Erie, where the public library established its seed library prior to the COVID pandemic, it serves to help families.

"During the summer, our kids don't have free and reduced cost student lunches," Kent explains. "What are they going to eat? I thought maybe we could get them started with having gardens."

She began potting a few plants and putting them on a table, free for the taking.

When the library was forced to lock its doors during the pandemic, Kent and her staff of three responded. They curated gardening kits featuring tomatoes and potatoes, giving them to patrons in the library parking lot.

Kent earned a grant for a small greenhouse, in which volunteers and staff begin all kinds of flowers, vegetables, and fruits to give away. Now, the library hosts occasional plant swaps, where community members can trade plants and produce. People have responded; now a local farmer even brings surplus fresh eggs to give away.

Above. Garden seeds are free for the taking at the Lawrence, Kansas, public library. In Lawrence, patrons look forward to the seed library and gardening resources, says Melissa Fisher Isaacs. Volunteers spend hours repackaging seeds from large packets into these envelopes. Old card catalogs are repurposed to hold a variety of garden seeds, from vegetables, to flowers and fruits, Fisher Isaacs says.


Removing barriers. The public library in Lawrence, Kansas, is much bigger in size than its Erie counterpart. Each spring, an army of volunteers combine with staff to transform one small section of the library into the seed and gardening headquarters. Yet the goal is the same, says Melissa Fisher Isaacs, supervisor of the library's Information Services.

"There may not be as many seeds in those packets, but there are enough for a person who's kind of giving something a try," she says.

In 2022, the Lawrence Public Library handed out some 10,000 packets of seeds, ranging from sweet corn to tomatoes; marigolds to zinnias.

"We have people who send us pictures of things they've grown and have heard from folks who have never tried gardening before and enjoyed it," Fisher Isaacs says. "Our anecdotal comments indicate this is something our residents look forward to, and that has encouraged us to keep going with the program."

Like her counterpart in Erie, Fisher Isaacs says gardening can be an expensive venture for some of its patrons.

"I do think there are some financial barriers for folks," she says. "We're trying to remove that barrier."

The Lawrence Public Library collaborates with the city's community gardens, Master Gardeners, and the local Extension office to help ease the anxiety some people have about taking on a garden for the first time.

"We're trying to provide a resource for people who have never done it before," Fisher Isaacs explains. "We've curated information for them and try to introduce them to people in the community to provide answers."

It started with seeds. The Erie library's effort to help its community earned it the Best Small Library in Kansas in 2022. For Kent, seed libraries are a function of what a public library is capable of doing—and she continues to wonder what else the library can do to serve its community.

"Never in my life have I had such success. Sometimes I look back and wonder how this all happened," she says. "But it started out by just having a seed library." ‡

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