Gardens, Libraries, and La Dolce Vita

Our First Meeting

As a younger me, I spent a lot of time planting and weeding in our family garden. I was obligated to do it, so of course I considered it a despicable waste of my time. But I was an obedient child, and I did like to eat, after all. If I were not in the garden or otherwise occupied, I would be reading.

Seeding, weeding, eating, and reading clearly brought me to where and what I am now, the librarian in the Robert Becker Memorial Library at Seed Savers Exchange, meeting our blog readers for the first time.

Staff at Seed Savers Exchange often use the library to research varietal histories or growing methods.

Why the Library Happened

At first glance it may seed odd that an organization known and loved for promoting dirt under your fingernails would have a library. But any organization or institution that collects and preserves things – whether living or non-living – is likely to need:

  • Historic and contemporary materials that help staff to build, preserve, study, interpret, and present the collection in any number of ways to the public;
  • Resources that provide practical information and tools for staff members to solve day-to-day problems or answer technical questions;
  • An institutional archive, with complete collections of publications (both digital and hard copy) and other key documents and records;
  • A repository for “stuff” other than seeds, plant tissue, and print material that relate to the organization’s history and mission;
  • A digital image repository including sufficient metadata to allow for searching and identification; and
  • An information professional who can implement and maintain effective, accessible organizational systems for all of the above.

The library has grown to become an essential part of the mission-driven daily life of Seed Savers Exchange, providing services to staff, board members and advisers as well as individual researchers and scholars.

Many historic volumes can be found in the Robert Becker Memorial Library.

How the Library Happened

True to the nature of the organization, the library at Seed Savers Exchange was the result of “organic” growth. 

Beginning as the personal library of Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, materials were donated, purchased, submitted to the organization for review and retained, sometimes dropped off anonymously.

In 1998 the library grew substantially when the family of Robert Becker donated his personal library to Seed Savers Exchange following Bob’s untimely death. Becker was a longtime friend of Seed Savers, a Cornell University professor, and Vegetable Specialist for the Ag Experiment Station in New York. With this major gift the library gained its name, and increased its value as a research collection.

Two substantial collections have been added to the library in recent years, both with important historic works on agriculture and horticulture - sources for techniques and practices that represent the original “organic” gardening.

What Cicero Said, Sort Of . . .

Botanical librarians often quote from the famous Roman orator who said:

"If you have a garden and a library, you have all you need." 

Cicero's actual words (I was a classics major so I have to do this out of sheer persnickety insistence) were:

"If you have a garden IN a library, you lack nothing."

In the famous orator's day, a typical home had as its main room an atrium with an open ceiling above and a shallow pool below, often surrounded by plants (that would be the "garden" - more of an ornamental collection) with enclosed rooms surrounding it.

A typical Roman atrium, courtesy of Creative Commons.

In Cicero's day, the room adjoining the atrium was called the tablinum - the home owner's office and reception space - which would have included buckets of papyrus scrolls that comprised the library. The proximity of the two are reflected in Cicero's words. Clearly, Cicero believed the “good life” required a combination of green things and written things.

And every botanical or horticultural library since the Roman Empire has probably printed its own t-shirts with Cicero's quote emblazoned on it. How can you go wrong with a quote like that from a guy like Cicero?

The 890-Acre Atrium

We’ve stood Cicero on his head. Rather than housing a garden in the library (a few plants would work, at the most), SSE houses a library in a vast garden.

Heritage Farm is our 890-acre atrium and the Robert Becker Memorial Library occupies a lovely space in the uppermost floor of an Amish-built timber frame administration building. The library collection includes over 4,500 volumes - historic works dating to 1586 and with several primary sources on historical agriculture and horticulture from the 17th-19th centuries in addition to contemporary library materials.

In lieu of a reflecting pool we have a cold spring and meandering trout stream open to the blue sky above, surrounded by bluffs, prairie plantings, woods, and pastures.

Seed Savers Exchange's Heritage Farm in Decorah, IA - home to the Robert Becker Memorial Library.

The “Other” Seed Bank

While SSE houses the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States, the library collection is a “seed bank” of another sort.

The library grows knowledge; seedlings of understanding sit on the shelves. And -- as long as our information infrastructure works -- access to online information extends our reach far beyond the library walls. Granted, a lot of our reading involves scanning pages, looking for a reference to one of our collection varieties in an old seed catalog, digging up an answer to the germination issues of this or that plant type, or poring over how-to guides on pest and disease management. Books, journals, e-resources on tissue culture, grafting, soil, pollinators, greenhouse standards  -- all that stuff and way more are what staff read on a need-to-know basis.

The Internet “Root Cellar”

The Internet provides a growing “root cellar” of digitized publications and images that aid our staff in SSE’s effort to document its germplasm collection. Here are a few I use frequently:

  • Biodiversity Heritage Library – – a monumental effort on the part of several major educational and botanical institutions, the Biodiversity Heritage Library works collaboratively to make biodiversity literature openly available to the world as part of a global community. BHL also serves as the foundational literature component of the Encyclopedia of Life
  • Hathi Trust –
  • Internet Archive – – a vast digitial archive including the Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, a part of the National Agricultural Library's Special Collections
  • Victory Horticultural Library – - an amazing effort by Mike Dunton to pull together a lot of historical information on the history of the seed industry in the United States.

What We Read, When We Read

Staff and board members at SSE range in reading tastes from information-seekers to passionate literary readers, from avid historians to sustainable-ag and environmental crusaders.

The library holds something for all...

  • from Wendell Berry poetry to Masanabo Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution
  • from SSE’s classic Seed to Seed book on seed-saving to Agriculture et le Maison Rustique by Charles Estienne (1586)
  • from the writings of geneticists Nikolay Vavilov and Jack Harlan, pioneers in preserving genetic diversity, to all the publications produced by Seed Savers Exchange over the past 39 years

The oldest volume at Seed Savers Exchange, Agriculture et le Maison Rustique dates to 1586.

We all like lists

Here is a sampling of frequent staff reads from over the last five years, generated via our integrated library system (i.e., SSE's online catalog):

  • The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds / Amy Goldman, 2004.
  • Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods / edited and introduced by Gary Paul Nabhan; contributors, Ashley Rood ... [et al.]; foreword by Deborah Madison. 2008
  • Melons: For The Passionate Grower / Amy Goldman; photographs by Victor Schrager; design by Doyle Partners, 2002.
  • Seed Germination, Theory and Practice / Norman C. Deno, 1993.
  • Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine / Gary Paul Nabhan; foreword by Ken Wilson, 2009.
  • Edible Landscaping / text and photographs by Rosalind Creasy. 2nd ed., 2010
  • Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: Popbeans, Purple Peas, and Other Innovations from the Backyard Garden / Carol Deppe. 1st ed., 1993.
  • Heirloom Vegetable Gardening; A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Growing, Seed Saving, and Cultural History / William Woys Weaver; photography by L. Wilbur Zimmerman; drawings by Signe Sundberg- Hall, 1997.
  • Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies: the Xerces Society Guide / Eric Mader ... [et al.]. , 2011.
  • Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians / [as told to] Gilbert L. Wilson; with a new introduction by Jeffery R. Hanson, 1987. Reprint. Originally published: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians. Minneapolis, 1917.

All you really need . . .

If you’re looking for the good life, la dolce vita, an atrium and tablinum somewhere in Italy would be nice, but really -- here’s all you need to do: seed, weed, eat, and read.

Visit your local library. See if there are green things growing there. 


Robert Becker Memorial Library is open for public research from 8:30-4:30 on weekdays. Circulation privileges are limited to staff and board members of Seed Savers Exchange. Access SSE’s library catalog here or via our website under “Education / Horticultural Library.”

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.