Within UTSC’s library, an old, repurposed card catalogue sits on a table, adorned with the names of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. This is UTSC’s seed library, a collaborative project between the UTSC library, the Culinaria Research Centre, and UTSC Edible Campus that has been running since 2019.

The goal of a seed library is to share seeds with the members of a community, enrich biodiversity, and foster food sovereignty. Food sovereignty refers to a sustainable network of producing and eating food where those who cultivate their food also have autonomy over its distribution and consumption. 

Much like at a traditional library, those who borrow seeds often return them by donating the new seeds that their plants have produced. The effect of the seed library’s ecological interdependence is twofold: it provides a space for patrons to gain the kind of knowledge not typically available at a library and it transforms perceptions of what roles a library can have in its community. In UTSC’s community, the seed library is set to play a bigger role this semester.

The benefits of a seed library

In an interview with The Varsity, Whitney Kemble, the UTSC librarian who has run the project since its inception three years ago, explained that she sources the supply of seeds through UTSC’s rooftop garden, community donations, and her personal garden, and that she has recently collaborated with the Campus Farm in Scarborough through seed sharing.

According to Kemble, the most popular seeds in the library are those that produce fruits and vegetables. Kemble stressed the significance of this, saying that “there’s a sustainability aspect and ecosystem aspect [to the library].” 

“There’s also a food sovereignty, food accessibility aspect that’s only going to become more and more important with climate change and with inflation,” Kemble added.

Moreover, Kemble noted that if they have access to a seed library, students can grow their own food, even without a garden. The library can have an immediate impact on the lives of UTSC students by “[teaching] people about growing in the space that they have,” Kemble said. “So even if you don’t have a garden, you can get some buckets or some pots and grow some tomatoes and lettuce — and you can grow the lettuce throughout the year.”

Growing one’s own crops, especially in a city, can be daunting for students that have little or no experience with gardening. Kemble hopes that having the seed library at UTSC can help break down some of the barriers for students who would like to plant their own seeds but do not know how to get started. 

“They might find it very intimidating, and even knowing where to go [and] what seeds to get [removes a] barrier to access,” she said. “There are some seeds in your face as you’re walking through the library, and you can take them because they’re free, so it’s easy. It’s just something to pique their curiosity, get them interested, and having no barriers makes it possible to be creative and experimental with it.”

Tapping into the curiosity of students is crucial for the seed library. Students might not typically expect to come across sachets of seeds when they enter the library to study. The seed library at UTSC widens the scope of what an academic library can offer. In turn, it provides students the chance to learn certain life skills that are often excluded from curricula. 

Plans to expand

Due to the impacts of COVID-19 on the university, the seed library has seen reduced participation in the past few years. But there are plans for the project to grow, as well as for hosting events that engage the UTSC community on issues regarding sustainability and food sovereignty. 

Along with their recent collaboration with the campus farm, the seed library is looking to strengthen its ties with the SCSU to directly engage with students in this activity and increase the visibility of the project. 

Kemble says that she plans to host “seed packing workshops, where people can help pack the seeds, and also learn about gardening and seed saving.” Regarding this fall term, Kemble feels “excited to be around people working together to make the seed library all that it can be.”  

“It had a good start in 2019 but then got the wind taken out of its sails,” Kemble said. “So it’s a new start as people go back to campus to learn about it.” 

“Whether it’s by seed donations or helping us with our seed packing and learning along the way, this is about how to grow and save and contribute to that life cycle that keeps us alive,” Kemble concluded.