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Public Seed Libraries Grow Around the Country

Public Seed Libraries Grow Around the Country

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A new kind of library is gaining popularity in communities

Libraries around the country are lending out more than just books. According to Modern Farmer, a new kind of public library is lending out seeds.

What started as a small trend has now grown to over 90 seed libraries in the country, many of which are public. Rebecca Newburn estimates that her seed library, Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in California as one of the first in the country and one of the first to go public in 2010.

While normal libraries lend out books to members for free, seed libraries lend out seeds for free and members use them to plant and tend to their crops. Instead of returning to the library with fruits and vegetables, members return with some seeds from the yield. These seeds are then available for members to plant next season.

While there were not many resources when Newburn started her library, she has helped to build the seed library community. She has helped develop the Seed Library Social Network and provides information on her library’s website about how to start a seed library.

Seeds & Gardening: Central Library Seed Collection

The Seed Collection is a joint project of the Austin Public Library and the Central Texas Seed Savers, a grassroots group of seed savers, gardeners, horticulturists and social activists that coalesced around the idea of establishing a repository and exchange system for seeds of land race, heirloom, locally adapted and native varieties of fruits and vegetable and other useful plants in Central Texas region. The Seed Collection is housed in the classic card catalog cabinet on the Austin Central Library's 6th floor. Everyone is welcome to "check out" and "return" seeds from the collection.
To request Central Library curbside seed pickup, please email your name and choice of up to four seed packets from our Collection Inventory to Ask a Librarian . Seed donations are accepted inside the Central Library or in the Central Library bookdrop in thoroughly sealed envelopes or other packaging, labelled with the seed name and date.

A Recipe for Reading: Culinary Literacy at Your Library

Few things bring people together like a good meal. Join us to hear how two libraries established culinary literacy programming for their communities and get tips for setting up a similar program in your community.

In this session, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center will share their work over the last five years using food and cooking as a context for learning in neighborhood libraries across Philadelphia. With some basic utensils and countertop appliances, you can create your own mobile kitchen classroom.

Inspired by the work of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center, the Athens Regional Library System’s staff and community partners lead a range of classes and events for patrons: from a series in which students learn basic kitchen skills while practicing English as a second language, to family events in which kids and their parents recreate fictional foods from picture books. Local chefs have used the equipment to demonstrate their signature creations, and they’ve even helped special needs patrons become more independent in the kitchen!

Bring your appetite for learning and join Free Library of Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center Director Liz Fitzgerald Athens Regional Library System Executive Director Valerie Bell Branch Manager Austin Jenkins and Children’s Specialist Tracy Guillorn as they lead you through the basics of setting up a culinary literacy program at your library.

At the conclusion of this session, participants will:

  • Understand and be able to define “culinary literacy,” an approach for connecting culinary arts to literacy initiatives and library programming.
  • Gain ideas for incorporating a mobile kitchen classroom into the development of engaging library programs for patrons of all ages and abilities.


Valerie Bell is the executive director of the five-county Athens Regional Library System, headquartered in Athens, Georgia. Bell joined the library system in 2015 after 28 years with Ocean County Library in Toms River, New Jersey. Under Bell’s leadership, the Athens Regional Library System has formed many community partnerships and has been awarded multiple grants, including a two-year Community Catalyst grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services to become a trauma-informed library in partnership with the University of Georgia School of Social Work and an American Dream Literacy grant by the American Library Association and Dollar General Literacy Foundation, which helped establish the library system’s culinary literacy program. Athens Regional Library System was named Georgia’s Public Library of the Year in 2017.

Tracy Guillorn is the children’s specialist at the Royston Public Library in Georgia. Guillorn’s favorite part of her job is programming and having children develop a lifelong love of the library and literacy. Since she started as the children’s specialist in 2018, program attendance numbers have tripled and more families have become regular patrons and supporters of all programming. When not at the library, she enjoys spending time with her family and being involved with her community.

Austin Jenkins is the branch manager of the Oglethorpe County Library in Georgia. Jenkins was recently selected to participate in the fourth cohort of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) joint project Future Ready with the Library. He previously worked as a children’s services specialist and teen services specialist, as well as manager of the Winterville Library.

Liz Fitzgerald is the director of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center and the Languages and Learning Center. The Culinary Literacy Center is the first kitchen classroom in a library in the nation and serves as a model for libraries and cultural institutions around the world. Fitzgerald has been with the Free Library for eleven years and was named a Mover & Shaker by Library Journal in 2016.

The Complicated Role of the Modern Public Library

A homeless patron, Allen Barkovich, sits in the Woodmere Branch of the Traverse Area District Library in Michigan, 2013.

—AP Photo / Traverse City Record-Eagle, Keith King

There aren’t many truly public places left in America. Most of our shared spaces require money or a certain social status to access. Malls exist to sell people things. Museums discourage loiterers. Coffee shops expect patrons to purchase a drink or snack if they want to enjoy the premises.

Pratt Library President and CEO Heidi Daniel reads at story time.

Pima County Health Department Library Nurse Daniel Lopez takes the blood pressure of homeless man Jim Truitt at the Main Joel D. Valdez Pima County Public Library in Tucson, Arizona.

—© Pima County Public Library

One place, though, remains open to everybody. The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data.

In a country riven by racial, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic divides, libraries still welcome everyone. “We are open spaces,” says Susan Benton, the president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, whose members include public-library systems serving cities large and small across the United States. “We certainly are without judgment about anybody’s characteristics.”

That commitment to inclusivity, along with a persistent ability to adapt to changing times, has kept public libraries vital in an era of divisive politics and disruptive technological change. But it has also put pressure on them to be all things to all people, and to meet a vast range of social needs without correspondingly vast budgets. These days, a branch librarian might run story hour in the morning, assist with a research project at lunchtime, and in the afternoon administer life-saving medical aid to a patron who’s overdosed on the premises.

If the idea of libraries as frontline responders in the opioid crisis sounds far-fetched, look no further than the Denver Public Library. In February 2017, a twenty-five-year-old man suffered a fatal overdose in one of its bathrooms. That prompted the library to lay in a supply of Narcan, a drug used to counteract opioid overdoses. Other libraries, including the San Francisco Public Library, have followed suit and begun to stock the life-saving drug.

Such interventions indicate the expanded role our public libraries now play in a fraying social network. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist based at New York University, spent a year doing ethnographic research in New York City library branches for his latest book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Klinenberg borrowed the title from Andrew Carnegie, the Gilded Age industrialist-turned-philanthropist who funded some three thousand public libraries—“palaces for the people”—in the United States and abroad.

In an update of Carnegie’s idea, Klinenberg describes public libraries as “social infrastructure.” That means “the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact,” he wrote in a 2018 op-ed in the New York Times. “Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto childcare for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.”

Klinenberg’s book is just one of a series of recent high-profile tributes to America’s public libraries. The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s most recent book, called simply The Library Book, begins with a personal love song to the subject before diving into the rich, troubled history of the Los Angeles Public Library and its iconic building in downtown L.A. In 2014, the photographer Robert Dawson published a book-length photographic essay that lovingly documents the astonishing variety of the seventeen thousand or so public libraries across the United States, from one-room shacks in the tiniest of towns to branches in strip malls to breathtaking, Carnegie-era book palaces in center cities. And a forthcoming NEH-funded documentary, Free for All: Inside the Public Library, brings to life some of the history and personalities that have shaped this major force for public good.

All of these projects confirm how libraries have proved over and over again, through decades of rapid change and predictions of obsolescence, that they remain essential to Americans’ lives. In an era of extreme weather events and other disasters, they’re becoming even more necessary.

The journalist Deborah Fallows and her husband, James Fallows, road-tripped across the country to report their 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, in which public libraries play a starring role. “In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers,” Deborah Fallows wrote in a May 2019 dispatch for the Atlantic. “After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours.”

Beyond Books

There are limits to the civic responsibilities public libraries can shoulder. “We’re not the police, we’re not social workers,” says Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, the director of the Palo Alto City Library system in Silicon Valley and the 2018–19 president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. “We do provide an important thread to a community’s well-being and health.”

In calmer times, public library systems offer a staggering array of programming that goes well beyond the books-and-story-time model many of us remember from our childhoods.

Ziesenhenne rattles off a list of some of Palo Alto’s offerings: a seed-lending library, home-brewing tutorials, a “Knack 4 Knitting” club, bilingual story hours, programs designed to help immigrants learn how to live in the United States. Keeping up with a national trend, the library recently created a makerspace with 3-D printers. In July, one branch hosted a workshop on how to use “graywater” from inside a house to sustain native-plant landscaping in the yard.

The list goes on and on. There’s something for almost everyone at the local library, whether you’re a parent who needs literacy support for your preschooler, an immigrant working on language skills or bureaucratic forms, a mystery fan in search of the latest whodunit by a favorite author, or someone experiencing homelessness who needs assistance with social services or access to a computer and the Internet.

Or you could just check out a book, as generations of library patrons have done before you. As extra-literary programs and digital offerings have expanded, the codex has not faded away. “We are still crazy busy with the basic printed materials,” Ziesenhenne says. “In Silicon Valley you would not necessarily expect that, but it’s absolutely true.”

Being located at the wealthy epicenter of the tech revolution doesn’t mean that the library has bottomless funds, though. Like most libraries, “we never have enough money for what we want to do,” Ziesenhenne says.

Even as print thrives, public librarians everywhere spend a lot of time wrangling with the great digital shift and how to adapt to it. In Palo Alto and elsewhere, they’re seeing an increase in the use of digital content as patrons become more familiar with how to use streaming media.

To keep up with changing technology and user expectations, public libraries have invested in more computer terminals and Wi-Fi capability. They have upgraded and expanded facilities to provide more outlets, meeting rooms, study spaces, and seating that patrons can use for extended periods of time as they take advantage of free Wi-Fi.

New, bigger, brighter coworking spaces see high usage among millennials, according to Ziesenhenne. “We are the original sharing economy, I like to say.”

The explosion of information online hasn’t sidelined librarians. It’s only made them more essential at a time when too few of us know how to distinguish real news from the fake variety. “We’ve worked very hard to think about media and how information is presented and ways we can equip people going forward to look for clues on a website,” including asking how old the content is and who’s providing it, Ziesenhenne says.

Librarians have an advantage in making themselves heard through the noise and confusion: Along with nurses and firefighters, they’re among the few groups and institutions Americans still trust, according to Lee Rainie, director of
Internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center.

From 2011 until 2016, Pew did a number of deep-dive studies of public libraries, work funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In those surveys, researchers found that trust in librarians remained high because of their proven ability to curate and share reliable knowledge. “That’s become one of the more precious skills in a world where gaming the information ecosystem is an everyday reality,” Rainie says.

Pew’s library research generated other findings that grabbed media attention: Millennials grew up loving libraries and continue to support and make use of them, Rainie says. Now that they have families of their own, they’ve remained loyal. Having a child under the age of six is the biggest predictor of library use, Rainie adds parents of young children like the family-friendly programs libraries run.

Pew’s research also found that families often see libraries as sanctuaries. “They were zones of peace, sometimes, in neighborhoods and communities where that was a precious commodity,” notes Rainie.

Farro: An Ancient And Complicated Grain Worth Figuring Out

Farro is a type of grain with a nutty flavor and ancient roots.

I was ready to forget about farro. This was a couple of years ago when I first attempted to cook the savory grain that also boasts an ancient pedigree. I had sampled farro in restaurants where I had enjoyed it transformed into risottos and incorporated into salads. I had come to adore its nutty earthiness and satisfying chew.

But after spending well over an hour simmering a batch of this form of wheat, I wound up tossing the whole mess in the garbage. As it turned out, the type of farro I was using was the whole grain variety. It's highest in fiber and nutrients like Vitamin B3 and zinc, but whole farro also requires overnight soaking — a step I had neglected to take. That meant that no matter how much time I put in front of the stove, I was likely to wind up with tooth-breaking tough kernels.

Eventually I learned about the semipearled variety — or semiperlato in Italy, where farro has been cultivated for centuries — in which some of the bran has been removed, allowing for speedier cooking. That's when my love affair with farro took flight.

In fact, with its cashew notes and undertones of cinnamon, and with its satisfying chew, farro has become my go-to grain for dishes ranging from salads to breakfast cereals.

Cook up some farro, layer it with roasted fruits, and enrich it with heavy cream or yogurt, and you have a swoon-worthy brunch dish. Or throw a handful into a pot of vegetable soup where it imparts an al dente bite to the tender soup ingredients.

About The Author

Laura B. Weiss's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including The New York Times, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, and on the Food Network website. She's a contributor to Interior Design's blog and was an editor for the Zagat Long Island Restaurant Guide 2009-2011. Laura is the author of Ice Cream: A Global History. Follow Laura on Twitter, @foodandthings.

Farro originated in the Fertile Crescent, where it has been found in the tombs of Egyptian kings and is said to have fed the Roman Legions. Italians have dined on farro for centuries. Now, with the revival of interest in whole grains, farro's popularity is gaining in the U.S. as well.

Americans' mounting interest in farro "got ignited by our passion for Italian food," says Maria Speck, author of Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More, in a phone interview. Chefs were the first to incorporate the grain into dishes. Now, home cooks are discovering farro too, she says.

Though we refer to farro as if it were one grain, it's actually three. There's farro piccolo (einkorn), farro medio (emmer), and farro grande (spelt). Emmer is what you'll find sold most often in the U.S. It's a harder grain than einkorn and is often confused with spelt, which is another type of grain altogether. Then there are farro's Latin labels: einkorn, which is Triticum monococcum emmer, which is Triticum dicoccum and spelt, which is Triticum spelta.

Is your head spinning yet?

There's also the question of whether you should choose whole farro, which retains all the grain's nutrients semipearled, in which the part of the bran has been removed but still contains some fiber or pearled, which takes the least time to cook but has no bran at all.

To top it all off, farro can be a bit maddening to shop for. At my local food stores, the label often simply reads "farro," so it's sometimes tough to know whether you're getting the whole grain or one of the pearled varieties. (In one head-scratching moment, I was confronted at an Italian specialty store with signage that displayed the label "farro," but packaging that said "pearl spelt.")

"There is indeed a lot of confusion about farro," says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at The Whole Grains Council. In fact, it can be enough to make you reach for your bag of quinoa.

Yet when all is said and done, farro is actually a forgiving grain to cook with. Simply follow the directions on the package. Otherwise, if the farro is clearly labeled, then for pearled and semipearled, bring the grains to a boil and simmer them covered for about 15 to 25 minutes, or for 30 to 40 minutes for the whole grain variety. In fact, I now favor whole farro for its intense flavor. Yes, you need to soak it overnight. But is it really so hard to pour a couple of cups of water over some grain before you go to bed?

Like all grains, farro is done, well, when it's done. For me, that means when it's al dente. But any way you prepare it, farro is a grain to savor. I'll trade my bag of quinoa for one of farro any day of the week.

Tuscan Soup

The original recipe for this soup, from Vegan Planet: 400 Irresistible Recipes With Fantastic Flavors From Home and Around the World by Robin Robertson, called for using spelt and for cooking the soup for 1 1/2 hours. I used semipearled farro instead of spelt and added some oregano and a bay leaf, and found that not only was this soup delicious, it was done in no time. Indeed, one of the benefits of this recipe is that the farro cooks in the soup broth, and by the time the soup is done, so is the farro.

Libraries as Universities

  1. Libraries serve as the “people’s university.”
    • In a time when education is increasingly expensive, public libraries provide information and educational opportunities free for all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Offered by libraries across the county, ALA’s Let’s Talk about It programs [36] are wonderful examples of scholar-facilitated learning opportunities in libraries. In addition, many libraries present classes and discussion programs, and some even provide online continuing education courses such as the Universal Class database. [37]
  2. Libraries offer opportunities for remote access, making it possible for those who can’t get to the library to still access the library’s cultural and educational offerings.
    • In addition to bookmobiles and databases, many libraries go above and beyond to make their services available to everyone. Polk County (Fla.) Library System offers B-Mail, [38] a free book-by-mail delivery service, and in Zimbabwe donkey-drawn carts deliver library services to remote villages. [39]
  3. Libraries go beyond providing content to enabling patrons to create their own content.
    • Librarians know that patrons aren’t just information consumers, they’re information producers. Patrons use the library to gain knowledge in order to create their own new and independent works. Increasing numbers of libraries provide spaces and services that meet the needs of people who want to learn how to edit Wikipedia, set up blogs or podcasts, create their own zines, and so much more. Many libraries offer art or writing workshops and groups, and some provide music practice rooms for patrons. Programs like ImaginOn [40] in Charlotte (N.C.) provide exciting models that take community partnership, creativity, and creation to a new level.
  4. Libraries promote civil discourse.
    • The decline of civil discourse stems in part from the fact that it is so easy for people to watch news about, buy products from, and engage—in both the virtual and real worlds—only with those of similar backgrounds and ideologies. Public libraries, through such programs as The Human Library [41] and Socrates Café, [42] can help build small communities of difference that encourage people to interact with and learn from each other through dialogue. By both actively promoting civil discourse through these programs, and by modeling and upholding the principles of free inquiry and expression for all, libraries help individuals rediscover the importance of and increased need for civil discourse in American life.

Seedkeeper Rowen White on the ‘Rematriation’ of Seeds to Their Native Lands

Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.

Rowen White is a Seedkeeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and an activist for Indigenous seed sovereignty. In this in-depth interview originally published in our Food Issue, Rowen shares what seeds—her greatest teachers—have shown her: that resilience is rooted in diversity, and that seeds carry the potential for the restoration of the living systems that nourish us. Seeds, she says, reflect back to us encoded memories of how to nurture a food system that is rooted in a culture of belonging. As we gather safely around the table this coming week, we invite you to consider our relationship to the foods that nourish us and to reflect on the encoded memories of planting and care that you carry.

Emergence Magazine: One of the strands of your work focuses on returning seeds to their original keepers, birthplaces, and lands. Can you talk about why this is so important?

Rowen White: For a multitude of reasons, many seeds have moved from their lands of origin, from tribal communities outward. We know that seeds move and migrate. It’s naturally a part of a seed’s journey to want to move along kinship routes and trade routes. Corn, herself, moved from a very fertile valley in Oaxaca to all regions of the globe, through trade and through kinship routes.

But during the time of immense colonization and displacement and acculturation in the last several centuries in North America, there have been some disconnections between people and their seeds, and also people and their ancestral lands. Through things like the Long Walk and the Trail of Tears, people have been relocated forcefully to other places, sometimes carrying those seed bundles with them. And then sometimes those seeds were traded out, but they didn’t stay alive in their communities of origin and they found themselves in places like the USDA seed bank and public access seed banks, like Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, and the Field Museum in Chicago, and the University of Michigan—many places, where these seeds have found themselves away from their communities of origin.

As we’ve been working with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, as a part of the larger Indigenous food sovereignty movement in North America, one of the key questions and key challenges or problems that we’ve seen is that tribal communities are needing access again to culturally significant seeds, that some of these seeds are no longer available in their communities because of those eras of transition. So many people are familiar with the word “repatriation,” which oftentimes is used when Native communities are reclaiming funerary objects or objects that have been stolen or removed from tribal communities, and also ancestral remains—when those are being returned from institutions outside their community back to their community.

This is a really different and interesting piece—we call this movement “seed rematriation,” because these seeds are alive when they’re coming back home. They’re living relatives, having come home after a long stint away, back to their motherland, back to their mother community. So, the rematriation is harkening to that maternal connection. In many of our communities, there’s a matrilineal connection to Earth. In many of our communities, the bundles of seed are carried by the women, and the ways in which these seed songs and ceremonies are kept alive is in the hands and hearts of women. So, we’re rematriating these seed bundles from institutions back to tribal communities.

Honestly, in all the work that I’ve been doing over the last twenty-plus years, this work of seed rematriation is some of the most impactful work that I’ve seen, in terms of how healing it is. When an Indigenous community works together in collaboration with an institution, or an organization, or a group of people that ancestrally were their adversaries—when they work together with seeds at the center, there is an immense amount of intergenerational healing that happens. When we choose to sort of lay the wounds to the side, and lay our war axes to the side, and work together to grow a garden, to restore these seeds to their rightful places, there is an immense amount of healing that comes with that.

I think in this time that we live in—especially in the political climate that we live in, that speaks so much to division, and to borders, and segregation of people—I think that the message that these seeds are carrying is a message of reconciliation and reparations, of people working together cross-culturally to heal wounds that feel almost impossible to heal.

There are some incredible stories of communities that we’ve been working with, where there’s the generosity of the Indigenous peoples to be willing to trust these allies, and then the allies coming forth with land and resources that help make the restoration of these seed varieties back in their tribal communities possible. I just think that there’s so many messages of hope that come from this movement to rematriate seed.

Rowen White is a Seedkeeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and an activist for Indigenous seed sovereignty. She is the director and founder of Sierra Seeds, an organic seed cooperative focusing on local seed production and education, based in Nevada City, California. She teaches creative seed training immersions around the country within tribal and small farming communities.

Beloit Public Library heirloom seeds offer sustainable food options

BELOIT, Wis. (WIFR) - The Beloit Public Library is bringing back its heirloom seed library, offering different plants for the residents of Beloit to plant at their home gardens.

Library officials say during the growing months, these heirloom seeds encourage gardening and seed saving as a means of providing the Beloit Community a fun and affordable source of nutritious sustainable food.

Heirloom seeds have a rich history and are open pollinated which means you can save the seeds on an annual basis. Some of the seeds at the Beloit Library have been cultivated for more than 50 years.

“It’s pretty amazing because you’re starting something from a little tiny seed and then it grows and grows into something you can eat, so you know where your food comes from. You grew it then you harvest it. These heirloom seeds have been around a long time they are different than what you would find at your grocery store,” Cathy Frenan of Beloit Public Library said.

Covid-19’s Impact on Libraries Goes Beyond Books

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Thousands of libraries across the United States, including this branch of the Chicago Public Library, have closed down to help slow the spread of Covid-19. Photograph: Max Herman/Getty Images

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For Jennifer Pearson, the choice was difficult but clear: Shut down the library, or people could die.

“My library was filled with older people,” Pearson says. “I just wanted to go out and scream, ‘Go home. What are you doing here?’ I knew that if we didn't make that move to close the building, they would never stop coming. We were, at that point, doing more harm than good.”

Pearson is the director of the Marshall County Memorial Library in Tennessee, which shut down last Wednesday. She’s also president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. The ARSL, along with larger organizations like the American Library Association, has issued a statement recommending that public libraries close their doors amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Library of Congress helped lead the charge earlier this month, announcing that it would close all its facilities to the public until April and suspend library-sponsored programs until mid-May. Soon after, public library systems in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle closed as well. To date, more than 3,000 libraries across the country have followed suit.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

The buildings won’t all just sit empty. In San Francisco, for instance, libraries and other public facilities have been repurposed as “emergency care facilities for children of parents on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak and low-income families,” according to a press release from the office of San Francisco mayor London Breed. But, as with every societal disruption wrought by the coronavirus, the closure of libraries can create ripple effects through the communities around them.

“Shutting down libraries has a tremendous impact on the communities that we serve,” says Ramiro Salazar, president of the Public Library Association and director of San Antonio Public Library. “Until they’re closed, sometimes folks don't realize how important libraries are to them.”

“Libraries are one of the few places that anybody can go to without the expectation of having to buy something,” says Darcy Brixey, a Seattle-based library manager who has worked in public and academic libraries for 20 years. She adds, “It’s the very basic thing of being able to go somewhere that you can use the bathroom, or being able to go somewhere and just be warm and dry. That’s called loitering in every other business except a public library.”

Libraries have long served as unofficial day shelters for people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. An especially vulnerable group in the best of times, the homeless face vanishing resources during a global public health crisis. California governor Gavin Newsom said he expects that 60,000 homeless people in California alone could become infected with the coronavirus. The issue is especially acute in smaller towns, where the shelter provided by a library can already be a last resort as it is.

“We don't have a homeless shelter, we don't have other places where they can just be during the day,” Pearson says. “Those people are on their own, and that’s a shame. It breaks my heart, but I don’t know what we can do for them right now.”

Libraries also serve as a lifeline for low-income families. They loan out far more than just books, Brixey says—baking materials, power tools, and general supplies that the more well off may take for granted. Libraries provide social resources for disadvantaged children or seniors, not to mention internet access in rural communities or for those who can’t afford it.

“I think it’s going to daylight a lot more of the equity issues that we have in this country,” Brixey says. “People are going to start seeing people that they never saw before . It’s going to seem small at first, but as the weeks go by, it’s going to become obvious."

It’s not quite all doom and gloom for library patrons. While physical branches may have shut down, many libraries still offer a wealth of digital content for those who have internet access elsewhere. Card holders can take advantage of ebook loans and streaming programs offered by their local libraries.

In general, libraries have also become much more forgiving about item return dates and library card expirations. Some libraries have started offering even more robust online offerings, from upping the allotment of streaming media rentals to hosting online reading sessions. On March 24, the Internet Archive announced it was creating a "National Emergency Library" by suspending wait lists for the 1.4 million books in its digital lending library. The organization says the suspension will remain in place until June 30, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.

“We cannot create a sense of normalcy for them,” Salazar says. “But we can use this new reality to offer something different. That’s what we’re working on. Many of us are challenged, but we’re coming up with good, creative ideas.”

While libraries have struggled during their time in suspended animation, more hardships may come after the coronavirus pandemic runs its course. At this point, an economic recession appears all but inevitable. During economic downturns, library patronage surges, as millions more people are drawn by free and low-cost resources, job-seeking programs chief among them. According to a 2010 report by the ALA, libraries in 24 states had their funding slashed during the recession of the late 2000s. Combine a surplus of increasingly desperate people with an underfunded library staff and things can get ugly.

“We’re probably going to lose staff and lose programming all at a time when people need us the most,” Pearson says. “We’re the helpers during a recession. It’s going to be tough for us to do that, because we’re going to be faced with either flat budgets or declining budgets, because our funders won’t have the money to fund us the way they do in the good economic times.”

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The hope among library advocates is that the coronavirus closures will spark more awareness of the services the brick-and-mortar institutions offer. A “don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” type situation, perhaps, that could generate more public support for libraries moving forward.

“At some point a library is going to save your ass,” Brixey says. “As long as you keep a library central to your life, you will always see how relevant it can be.”

Updated 3-25-2020 11:35 am EDT: This story was updated with information about the Internet Archive's new National Emergency Library.

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The 10 Best Seed Companies for Heirloom and Non-GMO Seeds

There are surely hundreds of great, family-owned seed businesses I have never heard of out there—and new companies seem to pop up every day. I can only recommend the companies whose seeds I have personally purchased and planted in the region of the U.S. that I have lived in.

If you have any questions about a seed company that is not listed here or on the Safe Seed Pledge list, just give them a call!

I recommend that you consider your values, your gardening needs and your local climate/region when choosing your seed sources.

Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA)

The Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a non-profit organization working to save heirloom garden seed from extinction. Their focus is on preserving varieties of seed that gardeners and farmers bring to North America when their families immigrate(d), and traditional varieties grown by American Indians, Mennonites and the Amish.

SSE’s 8,000 members grow heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruits and grains from all over the world, and offer them for exchange to other members in their amazing annual yearbook that has over 450 pages. You can find almost extinct varieties of seed to try in your garden, and all the money you spend with the Seed Saver’s Exchange goes to helping protect seed biodiversity.

This is, hands-down, my favorite place to look for seeds and exciting new plant varieties for my garden.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Mansfield, MO)

Baker Creek is a family-owned business offering a gorgeous catalog and website with over 1,800 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs—one of the largest selections of heirloom varieties in the U.S.

Baker Creek also carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties. They also specialize in rare and hard-to-find heirloom seeds from over 75 different countries. The company’s mission is to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage.

Clear Creek Seeds (Hulbert, OK)

Clear Creek is a small, family-owned business specializing exclusively in open-pollinated, heirloom seed varieties, including flowers, herbs and vegetables. They also offer several variety packs for even more value, like the Pollinator Pack and the Salsa Pack.

They have a smaller selection, but as a small company, they are able to provide warm, highly personal customer service, great prices and fast delivery.

MIGardener (Port Huron, MI)

MIgardener is a small, Michigan seed company that has over 700 rare and unique vegetable, fruit, and flower seeds. All of their stock is heirloom and organic grown by small family farms—and most seed packets cost only two dollars! Both the MIGardener website and their storefronts in the U.S. provide free workshops and information on everything from gardening to drying herbs to beekeeping!

Fedco Seeds (Waterville, ME)

Fedco is a cooperative business where consumer members own 60 percent, and employee members own 40 percent. Because the cooperative doesn’t have an individual owner, profit isn’t its primary goal, so their seeds and other products are quite affordable.

Fedco evaluates hundreds of varieties of hybrid, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds and plants at multiple sites, identifying the ones that are particularly productive, flavorful and suited to the northeastern U.S. climate.

Botanical Interests (Broomfield, CO)

Botanical Interests is a 25-year old small seed company that carries over 600 varieties of seed, including hundreds of heirlooms and certified organic vegetables, herbs and flowers. You can often find a stand of Botanical Interest seed packets at Whole Foods and other natural grocery stores in the U.S. Their seed packets are some of the most interesting, useful and informative in the industry.

Botanical Interests has both a seed donation program and a seed fundraising program for schools, shelters, and churches in the U.S.

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply (Grass Valley, CA)

Peaceful Valley is a seed company dedicated to organic food production that carries a large assortment of veggie seeds, cover crops, native grasses, pasture and lawn seed, wildflowers, fruit trees and berries, potatoes, onions and garlic. They also offer a great selection of gardening tools, pest control, season-extending products, composting supplies, growing, propagating and irrigation equipment, and books.

Peaceful Valley offers special pricing programs for farmers, school gardens and landscaping businesses.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Winslow, ME)

Johnny’s is a large, well-known employee-owned seed company that has more than 1,200 varieties of hybrid, open pollinated and heirloom vegetables, medicinal, culinary herbs and flowers, including a few varieties they have developed and patented themselves. If you are homesteading, farming or market gardening, they offer large quantities of seed, as well as a variety of cover crops to keep your soil in good shape.

Johnny’s also has high quality gardening tools, equipment and accessories, cover crop seed, soil amendments and organic pest control products. Their extensive site and catalog is full of detailed growing instructions and helpful tips, even if you don’t buy seeds from them.

Territorial Seed Company (Cottage Grove, OR)

Territorial Seed is a large, family-owned company whose mission is to improve people’s self-sufficiency and independence by enabling gardeners to produce an abundance of good tasting, fresh-from-the-garden food. They trial and evaluate all their seeds at their farms, and the live plants that they offer are raised in their farm greenhouses. They offer hybrid, open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties.

Territorial’s germination standards are higher than prescribed by the Federal Seed Act and their farm is certified USDA Organic, Biodynamic® by Demeter USA, and Salmon-Safe by Salmon-Safe Inc. They have a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

Seeds of Change (Rancho Dominguez, CA)

Seeds of Change was acquired by the Mars company, which has supported GMOs in their food products. Unfortunately, since the demand for healthy, organic products is so high, many organic brands (like Annie’s, Erewhon, Horizon, Plum Organics, and more) have been bought out by large industrial food corporations (like General Mills, Coca-Cola, etc.) who want a piece of the market.

It’s up to you to decide if you want to continue to purchase these brands, despite their new ownership.

However, ownership notwithstanding, you should know that Seeds of Change offers 100% certified organic open-pollinated, hybrid and heirloom seeds, and they grow all their own seeds on their research farm or within their network of organic farmers. They have also signed the Safe-Seed Pledge.

The reason I mention them here is that, because they have the marketing power of a large corporation behind them, you can get their seeds at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, Whole Foods, and lots of other retail chains. Seeds of Change is the only organic, open-pollinated seed company available at mainstream stores nationwide, which makes organic, open-pollinated seed accessible to anyone—including the majority of people who haven’t considered the value of organic, open-pollinated seeds before.

So if you don’t shop online (like my mom), or you’re new to gardening and don’t know where to start, you can easily pick up Seeds of Change organic, open-pollinated seeds for your garden while you are out running errands.

You can find more seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge here.


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