April 21, 2018

Seed Library Takes Root at Dalhousie University – Q&A With Coordinator Jolene Reid

Dalhousie Seed LibraryAt Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, the MacRae Library, which serves students and faculty in the school’s agricultural programs, has assembled a new collection: one of the seeds that have shaped the region’s farming history. While the collection is currently housed in a single repurposed card catalog, librarian Jolene Reid has high hopes that the archive will take root and, with some care from gardeners and farmers in the surrounding area, bloom into a catalog for recording strains of fruit and flowers from all around Nova Scotia–some of which may never before have made it off the family farms where they were developed.

What is the impetus behind starting a library for seeds?

Historically, saving seeds is a very standard practice. People have been saving seeds for thousands of years, but in the last few generations it has become less intuitive than it was in the past, so having a strong educational program is incredibly important. This collection gives us an opportunity to show off a skill set that exists in our community to a wider group of people.

Talk about how this seed library got off the ground at Dalhousie’s MacRae Library.

We had seen a number of public libraries doing this sort of thing and thought it was really neat. I brought a proposal for how it would work, and everyone we put it in front of couldn’t find a reason to say no to it. Last spring, we started networking with existing seed libraries and looking at their best practices, and put together a great advisory panel with people from the campus, locals not affiliated with the school, and librarians from the public libraries nearby.

What does the seed library consist of now?

We’ve got 80 varieties of seeds, including herbs, fruits and vegetables, and ornamentals, none of which are hybrid or genetically modified plants. We stocked the collection for this first year with seeds purchased from local suppliers, with an eye toward seeds that save well and that thrive in our microclimate. We’ve got heirloom hollyhocks that are beautiful, we have some really fantastic tomatillos, and a German tomato variety that looks like a cluster of cherry tomatoes, but is really just one fruit. It’s one of the most interesting creatures I’ve ever seen.

Talk about the plan for growing this collection over time. What does collection development look like for a seed library?

The plan is that people who have used our seeds will save seeds from their plants and return them to us for a second generation of plants. As an agricultural university in an area known for farming, we’re also encouraging people who have been growing plant varieties at home to share those seeds with us. Often a family could have been growing a seed for generations, and if it’s not for sale, we don’t know about it. We’d love to bring some of those seeds into the library so we can grow our collection and provide the community with access to those seeds.

Beyond just a way to grow a plant, what sort of history is attached to these seeds?

Gardeners are storytellers, and as we bring in donations, capturing the story of those seeds has become a huge part of the project. There are seeds that came over in the pockets of immigrants, and we have a chance to gather those stories, share them, and make them accessible online so the stories can keep travelling along with the seeds.

Are these seeds that anyone can grow, or should there be some level of experience in the gardeners here?

We have seeds broken down into easy, intermediate, and master levels. The concepts at play here can seem complex, and we don’t want it to be intimidating for people to get involved. We’re also hosting events like Seedy Saturday, to reach out to people and provide a place where they can trade and buy seeds, as well as attend workshops on things like gardening practices and composting techniques.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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