The Wonderful World of Non-Traditional Library Collections: Spotlight on Seeds!

Editor’s note: this article was originally published on January 25, 2017.

You probably know by now that libraries worldwide are lending out so much more than books and media. To highlight just a few:

  • The Sacramento Public “Library of Things” loans out sewing machines, musical instruments, and video games, items which were chosen by patron vote.
  • Ann Arbor District Library offers everything from art prints (redecorate every couple months!) to telescopes (you know you want to look at the moon!) to die-cutting kits (indulge your scrapbook fantasy…)
  • Specialty cake pans have also become a popular collection for many public libraries. Because let’s be honest, how many times will you make a Dora the Explorer cake in your life? Personally, I’m drawing a line at ONCE.
  • And of course, who could forget the venerated Berkeley Tool Library, part of the city’s public library system since 1979? Their experience proves that yes, patrons WILL return the tools, and WILL take good care of them.

I mention this wide variety of non-traditional collections for inspiration in the face of the tired old “Nobody reads anymore, and libraries are doomed because of Google” argument (but also just because they’re awesome). We know that libraries are in the process of transforming. We are right in the middle of that transformation, so it’s hard to always be sure of where we’re headed. But I feel strongly that libraries, especially public ones, can take this moment to own their role as the traditional, non-commercial center of the community. We are the gathering place; we provide the opportunity to learn something new and the chance to connect with your friends and neighbors while doing it.

So, all wonderful and good. But what if you’re not the branch manager, and your library has no room for a bunch of tools, or you have no political will to tear up the front lawn and install raised beds for community gardeners? What if you have no money for telescopes or cake pans? How can you possibly start your own non-traditional collection for very little money and space?

Well, there are these great little things, the very miracles of nature by which all life exists. They’re intelligent, complete, and blessedly tiny. You can collect and share them easily, and meet your friends and neighbors while doing so:


Seed libraries (also known as seed shares) are small, often portable, inexpensive to create, and provide a great reason for patrons to visit your library often. They offer inspiration to pick up a book as well as a shovel. In an age of increased interest in local and sustainable food production, they are sure to be popular with patrons whether your library is large or small, urban or rural.

Now, seed libraries can be extremely complex if you want them to be, since there are so many different ways of setting them up. Once you start Googling, you’re likely to get all excited about the many possibilities (Seed cataloging, anybody? Seed databases?). My advice? KEEP IT SIMPLE. You can always get fancier later, once the idea catches on in your library, but chances are, at the beginning, people will be scared off from using it if it’s too complicated.

I did an internship last fall at Honoka’a Public Library, my local branch of Hawai’i State Public Library System. I had an idea to start a seed library, and I was full of big ideas. Wisely, my supervisor made me do a ton of research first, and insisted that we wait to put it up until we had a plan for keeping it sustainable in the long run, since she didn’t want to risk offering something to our patrons that we would later have to remove. We went back and forth for months working out a system that would be simple and easy to use, while still offering enough helpful information for patrons. After my many fantasies about re-purposed card catalogs with seeds alphabetized by plant family, this is what we ended up with:


Basic, yes. Functional, yes. Patrons donate seeds into the bottom portion, and library staff collects and stores them until Friends of the Library volunteers (right now, that’s me and my neighbor) are able to sort and separate them into smaller packets for patrons to “borrow.” So far it’s working, though we’re only a couple of months into the experiment.

Tips for starting a successful Seed Share in your library:

  • Partner with other like-minded organizations. I can’t emphasize this enough. Our seed share station was donated by a group here in Hawai’i who is making and offering these for free. They also gave us our starter seeds. We will also be attending the biannual seed exchange event that happens in our town next week, in the hopes of collecting more seeds for the library.
  • Do your research first; figure out what kind of seed share is likely to work well for your community. If you start with a group of experienced gardeners (or have big funding), you might be able to get a little fancier at the outset. Figure out what safeguards you need to put in place in order to keep it sustainable. There’s not much use in making a beautiful seed share station that falls into disrepair.
  • Plan programming that intersects with and supports the seed share. I can’t say I’ve done this personally, but I’d like to! Kailua-Kona Public Library has seed share-related events every month, thanks to their super-active Friends organization (they also have the coveted re-purposed card catalog…)

Finally, a few more links as you start your research:

Happy seed saving!

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