Anthropology in Action: UA Helps Plant a New Kind of Library

Near the entrance of the Joel D. Valdez Main Library in downtown Tucson stands an old card catalog, once a treasure trove of information about all the books housed in the building.

Having since been replaced by online cataloging, the wooden catalog's deep drawers are now filled with something quite different. Would you believe ... melon, cucumbers, arugula and mesquite?

Hundreds of neatly filed seed packets make up the downtown Seed Library, one of eight such libraries in the Pima County Public Library system. Anyone with a library card can "check out" seeds to plant at home.

The goal of the Seed Library is to build a sense of community and provide free seeds so that people can grow their own food, herbs and flowers, says librarian Justine Hernandez, who oversees the Seed Library.

There's no such thing as a late fee, since seed borrowers are not expected to bring back anything. However, those who have success with their home garden are encouraged to harvest seeds and return them to the library to help sustain the community exchange.

Since the Seed Library's launch in 2012, the University of Arizona's School of Anthropology has provided ongoing support for the program, coordinated largely by Ashley Stinnett, who recently earned her doctorate in anthropology from the UA.

Under Stinnett's direction, interns with the UA's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, or BARA, captured the project's beginnings on film, and they continue to partner with the library to answer the research questions: Who is using the seeds, and how is the program working?

The information gathered by the interns in their fieldwork helps to inform the Seed Library's direction, Hernandez says.

"It helps us be strategic about where we put Seed Libraries, and helps us make decisions about what our collections look like," she says. "They help us see things through a fresh lens."

When Pima County opened its first five Seed Library locations in 2012 — at the Main, Himmel Park, Flowing Wells, Quincie Douglas and Ajo branches — the concept of a seed library was relatively new.

Since then, the trend has caught on nationwide, and the Pima County Seed Library has expanded to the Martha Cooper, Dusenberrry-River and Oro Valley branches. Visitors to any Pima County Public Library branch can order seeds to be sent to their location, and an estimated 20,000 seed packets circulate through the library per year.

As the Seed Library has evolved, BARA interns have conducted interviews with various Seed Library partners — including Tucson Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is among several organizations that contribute seeds to the collections — to document their experiences.

The interns also put together an introductory video about the library and how to use it, which is available as an instructional resource on the Pima County Public Library's website.

Hernandez says the video has been viewed by people all over the country and can serve as a resource for others who might be interested in establishing their own seed libraries. The video was produced in the School of Anthropology's Diebold Linguistic Anthropology Research and Teaching Laboratory, funded by a donation from the late Richard Diebold, UA anthropology professor emeritus.

One of the goals for this semester is to create a Spanish translation of the Seed Library video, says Stinnett, who this semester assumed a faculty position at Western Kentucky University.

An avid gardener, Stinnett was drawn to the Seed Library because of its focus on community.

"Throughout history, humans have saved, shared and sorted seeds all over the globe, so continuing that process is a great way to preserve our cultural heritage," she says.

Stinnett says BARA interns' work with the Seed Library has not only helped inform the library, but has also given students an opportunity to find out what it's really like to work as an anthropologist in the field.

"Students gain a level of confidence in their abilities to go out and interact with the world in a professional way," she says. "They learn how to think on their feet and how to work together as a team."

Hernandez says she looks forward to continuing the library's partnership with BARA.

"These students are so involved and committed to the community," she said. "They can give us really great input."


By: Alexis Blue, UA Communicaitons

Published Date: 

09/10/2015 - 10:58am