Civic seeds: new institutions for seed systems and communities—a 2016 survey of California seed libraries


Seed libraries (SLs) are institutions that support the creation of semi-formal seed systems, but are often intended to address larger issues that are part of the “food movement” in the global north. Over 100 SLs are reported present in California. I describe a functional framework for studying and comparing seed systems, and use that to investigate the social and biological characteristics of California SLs in 2016 and how they are contributing to alternative seed systems based on interviews with 45 SL managers. At a minimum, SLs function as new seed distribution institutions founded and overseen by dedicated, values-driven individuals and groups with goals including education, seed access, local adaptation, biodiversity conservation, community-building, and human health. Annually about 4776 people borrow seeds from, and 238 people return seeds to the SLs in this study, that operate through over 17,000 hours of work/year. These SLs distribute approximately 6456 packets of seed annually, mostly of commercial seeds from small seed companies, but some SLs emphasize local and culturally meaningful seeds. The significance of a 6% seed return rate depends on SL goals and can be investigated once appropriate indicators for those goals are identified and documented. Beyond distribution, the seed system functions accomplished by SLs differ, and all can have consequences for the processes shaping the diversity and adaptation of their crops. The SLs engaged in seed system functions beyond distribution are new forms of socially-motivated community science, poised to develop biological and social innovations reflecting their values and interests.

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  1. 1.

    Here “institution” refers to an organized, shared method of interaction in relation to a particular process or resource, that defines the constraints and opportunities available to the participants (McGinnis 2011; Soleri et al. n.d.).

  2. 2.

    Seed Library of Los Angeles. Accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  3. 3.

    Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library. Accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  4. 4.

    Open Source Seed Initiative. Accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  5. 5.

    Open Source Seeds. Accessed 18 Aug 2017.

  6. 6.

    Seed Libraries. 2017. Sister libraries. Accessed 13 Aug 2017.

  7. 7.

    Electronic Supplementary Material, files associated with this paper that are available on the Springer website.

  8. 8.

    Developed in 1999 by the non-profit Council for Responsible Genetics, the pledge declares the signatory “does not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants,” (

  9. 9.

    Seed Savers Exchange educational resources (; Organic Seed Alliance’s publications (, including their “A seed saving guide for gardeners and farmers,” that contains the original seed saving chart that SSE’s is based on; other sources, including some listed on Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library’s seed saving page ( All accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  10. 10.

    Refers to town, city or other incorporated area of that name, and found in the US Census.

  11. 11.

    Calculated from the poverty threshold; guideline for a family of four in January 2015 was $24,250

  12. 12.

    Library Services and Technologies Act. Institute of Museum and Library Services. California State Library. All accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  13. 13.

    Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2017. Accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  14. 14.

    The most popular of these, based on California SL manager comments and SL websites include the Community Seed Exchange (, Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library (, Seed Library of Los Angeles (, Seed Matters (, and Seed Savers Exchange ( All accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  15. 15.

    SeedBroadcast. Accessed 9 Aug 2017.

  16. 16.

    SSE’s initiative to collect seed stories. Accessed 9 Aug 2017.



Genetically modified organism


Not appropriate


Seed library


Seed Savers Exchange


United States of America


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Many thanks to all of the seed library managers and workers who patiently answered questions and explained their institutions, practices and values; to three anonymous reviewers, David A Cleveland, and the editor for comments that greatly improved this article; Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, and Jon Batiste and Stay Human for inspiration.

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Correspondence to Daniela Soleri.

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Soleri, D. Civic seeds: new institutions for seed systems and communities—a 2016 survey of California seed libraries. Agric Hum Values 35, 331–347 (2018).

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  • California
  • Community science
  • Food gardens
  • Seed library
  • Seed system
  • Urban agriculture