When the libraries in Durham, N.C., open tomorrow, patrons at three of the city’s seven branches will find that something from the book-hunting days of yore has reappeared: old-school card catalogs.
But these familiar drawers aren’t coming back to guide visitors to the Dewey decimal numbers of the books they're searching for. Rather, the drawers will house packets of seeds that can be checked out and planted in a home garden. Come fall, when the generous loan period is up, those free plants will be “returned” in the form of saved seeds, which will stock the card-catalog drawers once again the following spring.
“We’re a foodie town and a very DIY town. We have a wonderful farmers market,” says Joanne Abel, humanities and adult programming coordinator at the Durham County Library, “so it’s just a perfect mix” to bring a seed-lending program into. The Richmond Grows Seeds program at that California city’s public library inspired the Durham library's new collection.
In the run-up to the launch, the library has held a series of seed-saving workshops and has been asking for donations from local nurseries, farms, and backyard gardeners. It will have about a thousand seeds per participating branch, most of them open-pollinated, with varieties ranging from those sold by commercial seed companies to more personal selections, including a mild green pepper donated by someone who got his seeds “from John at work.”
Only five donations currently carry such personal, albeit short, stories about the variety's background; the majority of the donations are from garden centers. Still, Abel hopes that in future years the seed collection will feature plants that are not only adapted to Durham’s climate but can tell stories of the area’s gardens and farms too. She’s trying to get the Center for Southern Folklore at the University of North Carolina to work with the seed library, and she plans to have a website that features the stories behind the seeds people donate to the program.
But starting tomorrow, it will just be those drawers filled with seed packets, and the lending will operate on the honor system—you can come in and take home four types of seeds.
“We really hope this idea will spread,” Abel says. “I hope that eventually all libraries will have seed libraries.”
With books following card catalogs off paper and into the digital ether, dealing in something tangible like seeds is revitalizing for a public library. Such a program, Abel continues, is a way of “renewing ourselves as a hub of the community.”