A few miles north of Syracuse proper, you’ll find a library with its own farm — or maybe it’s more appropriate to call it a farm with its own library. The LibraryFarm at Northern Onondaga Public Library (NOPL) at Cicero is a growing (pun-intended!) part of the community there.
The completely organic LibraryFarm lends out plots to patrons for each growing season. It also hosts a community garden, the produce from which they donate to local food pantries. I sat down with Jill Youngs, library manager at NOPL Cicero, to talk plants, programming, and being a librarian with a twist.
What is your professional background? How long have you been working for NOPL?
I’ve been with NOPL for over 10 years. I came from Liverpool before that. I worked 10 years there, and 10 years here, let’s put it that way. I’ve had my library degree since 2004. I had a career with the courts system before that and I switched over.
How did the LibraryFarm get started?
One of the things I’m sure to emphasize when I talk about it (LibraryFarm) is that they first took a survey just to make sure they had enough people that were interested, because it’s a huge project. As it turns out, they didn’t really get that many bites, but they knew they would get more as it started to go.
There was a minimal investment, because the land was already ours. The turning of the soil was a volunteer effort, there was really no investment whatsoever. Right now we’re up to 40 or 50 people who are actively involved, and we have eight or nine who are the original members.
We just put out some feelers, turned the dirt — the dirt alone and the plants growing up are their own advertisements. Everybody’s like ‘what’s that?’ and we say ‘oh, we’re an organic farm and garden, and we’re learning everything we can because we know nothing,’ and that’s the way it went.
Other libraries have gardens. But as far as I know, no other library have gardens where they had actual patrons participating. We get asked all the time for some of the information we have, what we know and what we’ve learned, what kind of structure, what kind of organization, our rules and regulations that everyone signs off on every year. I do think we were one of the first. A lot of libraries had gardens, but not the individual gardeners — plotters, we call them — doing what we do.
Each year, we have six to eight plots that we dedicate to feeding the local pantries, which is really cool. Last year we did over 200 pounds of fresh food to local pantries.
So it grew from there. First, it was just a bunch of people turning over dirt, then it became a little more organized, and the whole project started to lean a little more heavily on the library than maybe was originally anticipated. As it became obvious there were needs, things for the community out there to share, like water and wheelbarrows, we became a little more involved.
What kinds of programs do you hold around the LibraryFarm?
Anything you can think of. We have a lot of different programming that springs forth from the LibraryFarm, it kind of gives this whole library a focus. We try to really concentrate on being green and environmentally-friendly. We’ve had maker programs for adults and kids, upcycle old PVC pipes for a trellis, things like that. We’ve had programs with Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency and Cornell Cooperative Extension — composting, worm raising, how to put up your harvest, how to deal with pests. A lot of the programs we do here, we hope that people can take home with them as well. They don’t necessarily have to be LibraryFarm plotters.
We also have a nature camp here, we were one of the first libraries that ever did a nature camp. It’s for kids and it’s in the summer, and it’s been led by all sorts of people — interns from ESF, SU students. They’ll go out there and pick things, water things, it’s just a fun thing.
Is there anything new you will be trying for this growing season?
Every year everything is different. There’s always something new. I’m hoping this will be a good year for us to do some straw bale gardening. Straw bale gardening is one of the new programs that Cornell Cooperative Extension offers. I’m waiting to hear back, but I’m hoping we can have a program here as well. All the nutrients are there, you get it all wet, and it’s gotta be just so, but once it goes, you don’t have to do anything for it and at the end of the season, it will fertilize the soil for next season.
Just being in a garden, you never know — too much water, not enough water. The one year where we had an exceptional amount of snowfall was also the driest year out there, and it prevented a lot of moisture from getting into the garden. We just never know.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities in terms of the LibraryFarm?
It’s very hectic at the beginning of the season, people have to sign off on rules and regulations. We have a ‘till by’ and a ‘plant by’ date so I know that people are in there. After the kick-off in February or March, we’ll open up the new plots as a lottery. There’s paper pushing, creating newsletters, and planning and scheduling. Every day is different. When the season starts, it gets a little bit quieter, because everybody is out there and just really busy with their gardens, and I’m able to go out there and enjoy it — take pictures and things like that.
What is your favorite thing about being a librarian?
When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s good as a librarian, there are so many opportunities to do so many things, public libraries in particular. We’re just one part of our community, so what we like, probably other people like too. It’s so cool to pull things together that people enjoy, whether it be through collection development or programming or services. The programs we offer here are usually programs we like too, whether it be building a trellis or something ancestry-related. I think it’s a great job.
Do you have any advice for current LIS students and new librarians?
Public libraries. Well, that’s just my opinion. You get a little bit of everything here, you’re helping everybody. It’s a huge world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.