By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office. This article was first published in @theU on March 10, 2023.
For hundreds of years, libraries have provided free access to knowledge, literature and ideas. But alongside the books, magazines and journals available for loan, some libraries have also begun lending seeds. Today, over 450 seed libraries exist around the world, including one here at the University of Utah.
At the Eccles Health Sciences Library, you’ll find books, study spaces and a collection of seeds that patrons can borrow to plant and grow. At the end of the growing season, borrowers are encouraged to harvest their seeds and replenish the collection for future patrons to enjoy.
The Seed Library, which was founded in 2020 in partnership with the College of Nursing, the Edible Campus Gardens and the Feed U Pantry, has shared hundreds of seeds and seedlings with the U community. The library aims to increase access to locally grown food, mitigate food insecurity, increase local plant resilience and improve the health and well-being of health sciences students, staff and faculty.
“Wellness was the intention,” says Dr. Jennifer Macali, associate professor at the College of Nursing and co-founder of the seed library. “At the time, because of COVID, it was one way to encourage people to be outdoors—as safe as they could within their close circle—and still engage with both nature and community.”
The program also aims to increase access to fresh, nutritious food and support community members who are experiencing food insecurity. “It’s reciprocal in a way, and levels the playing field,” says Macali, who points out that the cost of seeds is prohibitive to some. “The seeds are usually the expensive piece.”
Saving seeds year after year also creates resilient plants that adapt to our local climate. Gabrielle James, who coordinates the Edible Campus Gardens, explains that seeds take up to seven growing seasons to fully adapt to the local climate. “It’s hard to grow food here with how dry and hot and high up it is,” James says. “Saving those seeds and growing them year after year in place just helps them be resilient.”
Housing a seed collection in a medical library is uncommon but intentional, says Macali, whose scholarly interests include health care professionals’ and students’ well-being. Due to demanding jobs and long working hours, many health care providers are particularly disconnected from their food, she explains. “They don’t really know all of the labor that it might take, and water and resources that go into growing this one piece of food that they decide to eat, and then not to mention the nutritional value of these items.” By locating the seed collection in the U’s medical library, the program works to provide health care workers and students with access to seeds and to increase their understanding of how the environment, nutrition, and food systems affect health and wellness.
The seed library serves as a gathering place for people to share the fruits of their labor and learn about local plants and traditional growing practices. “Libraries have become spaces of gathering, where people come to learn new things,” says Brandon Patterson, assistant librarian at the Eccles Health Sciences Library and co-founder of the seed library. “Having a seed library in a library—it just adds that community aspect of what libraries are becoming.”
So, whether you’re a seasoned gardener or curious to try your hand at growing tomatoes, stop by the Eccles Health Sciences Library this spring to borrow seeds, work the soil, and contribute to a sustainable and equitable local food system.