People have been sharing and trading both books and seeds since the advent of writing and agriculture. Sooner or later, someone was bound to put the two together under one roof.

Community seed libraries, housed in local public libraries, are taking off in Maine with librarians dusting off old card catalog bins and replacing the Dewey Decimal System cards with seed packets.

There is no official database tracking the number of seed libraries in the state, so there is no reliable way to count how many seed projects are going on in Maine, but the interest appears to be growing.

“This community is really interested in gardening,” said Laurie Carpenter, director of the Orono Public Library. “Libraries are adding new formats all the time and [seeds] are just another thing people can borrow.”

In its most basic form, a seed library is a central location where community members can store, trade, and get free seeds. According to the online resource Seed Libraries, many are located in traditional lending libraries with the goal of encouraging community members to produce and share local food.

Some communities take the added step of developing and sharing local varieties of seeds uniquely adapted to a specific area and climate.

Maine’s seed law allows for this free and open exchange of seeds, according to John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

“We do not regulate Mainers who save and exchange seeds in small community groups,” Bott said.

According to The Seed Library, last summer the American Association of Seed Control Officials adopted an amendment to the Recommended Uniform State Law that would exempt all seed libraries in every state from commercial regulations.

The AASCO is a group of seed control professionals from departments of agriculture in each state which proposes seed control guidelines for state legislative consideration.

Currently, seed library laws vary widely from state to state.

In Minnesota, for example, gardeners are prohibited from sharing or giving away seeds unless they buy an annual permit, have the germination of each seed lot tested, and attach a detailed label to each seed packet. This law is enforced by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which has reportedly told seed libraries that they can’t distribute free seeds to gardeners unless they buy a permit and provide detailed labeling, even though the libraries aren’t selling the seeds. The penalty for violating this law is a fine of up to $7,500 per day.

Here in Maine, it is legal to save and share seeds through a seed library. The idea, according to Carpenter, is for the public library to set up an initial selection of seeds and make them available to gardening members of the community who can come in and “check out” packets.

“We have a system in place for people to sign out seeds,” she said. “The idea is they will then plant, grow, harvest and dry the seeds that are produced from what they selected and bring them into the seed library.”

The Portland Public Library is entering its second year “loaning out” seeds and so far it’s getting positive reviews from the public, according to Meg Gray, science and technology librarian.

“Portland Public Library cardholders in good standing may choose up to four packets of seeds per month [and] they receive a flyer of information on how to grow and save seeds,” Gray said. “Returning seeds is not required and fines never accrue.”

However, Gray said the hope is patrons will save and contribute the seeds produced by the library plantings.

Different vegetables and fruits require specific seed harvesting and preserving methods to preserve their viability. These methods mimic what happens in the natural world and participating libraries have information and often hold lectures to help participants through the process so they can learn to save seeds.

“There is only one growing season behind us, so in many ways the project is still in its infancy,” she said. “2017 is an exciting year for the program because we’re entering phase two where we’ll make seed label return slips available and borrowers can contribute their next generation seeds to the library for others to grow.”

Up the coast in Northeast Harbor, the public library is getting ready for its fourth year handing out seeds.

“We’ve been collecting seeds every fall for about three years and give them out in the spring,” said Elly Andrews, director of the Northeast Harbor Public Library. “This has been a popular offering with our patrons [and] last spring about 24 people took over 50 types of seeds.”

A little over a year ago, the folks at the Abbott Memorial Library in Dexter started exploring the possibility of seed library, but opted to go in a different direction.

“We had a person who works with Fedco talk to us about improving the quality of seeds that we grow,” said Liz Breault, library director. “So we sort of branched off and took a turn in the road.”

Instead of establishing a lending library for seeds, the group now works to develop disease resistant and local climate tolerant varieties of squash, tomatoes and peppers.

“We do share our seeds once a year,” Breault said. “But we moved beyond that by learning how to hand pollinate certain vegetables to improve specific qualities we are looking for.”

This spring the group will plant the first of the locally developed seeds.

“We are into way more now than just saving seeds,” Breault said. “At first we were just going to get a card catalog and fill it with seed packets, but now we are developing our own seeds [and] it’s been a total education.”

As far as Gray is concerned, a lending library is a perfect spot for a seed library.

“As a librarian, I’m excited by the educational components of this project and I hope the seed library will provide borrowers with new avenues for discovery as they grow their own food and contribute seeds back to the library,” she said. “Over time, I hope that the seed library is able to make a positive impact in the protection of of Maine’s biodiversity and food security.”

In Orono, according to Carpenter, there was already a fairly active group in the community dedicated to producing local food. The seed library, she said, is a natural extension of that.

“We have our community garden that will use our seeds and what is grown there is distributed to area seniors on fixed incomes,” she said. “We also have a pretty vibrant farmers’ market.”

As far as Breault is concerned, the more people can free themselves from mass market, commercially produced seeds the better.

“We wanted to preserve our own seeds that were produced locally and are acclimatized to our climate,” she said.

Norridgewock, Mt. Vernon, Ellsworth and Tenants Harbor have also started seed programs in their public libraries and the Falmouth Public Library had a seed library for year but it was discontinued due to lack of space. Officials there did say they plan to start it again when new space is available.

“A seed lending library supports so many aspects of a healthy community” said Gray. “From sparking interest in gardening and growing, to providing resources for people to lead healthy lives and make healthy choices, to supporting the community’s interest in sustainability and permaculture.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.