Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not Your Garden-Variety Library

Planting a seed library yields community connections
At the Fairfield Woods branch in Connecticut, library volunteer Eric Frisk gives a lesson in the library’s community garden plot.
Librarians recognize that the idea of libraries as a place for just books is ludicrous and has been for decades. “We go with the ‘great libraries build great communities’ mantra,” says Nancy Coriaty, deputy town librarian for branch services at Fairfield (Conn.) Public Library. “If we see something we think will benefit the community, we go for it.” It was with that thought in mind that the library created a seed library at its Fairfield Woods branch in 2011.
The basic concept of a seed library is fairly simple: Gardeners “check out” seeds to plant in their own gardens, and when the growing season is done, they save seeds from the plants they grew and return them for other gardeners to use next year. In practice, seed libraries adapt this basic concept to the needs and capabilities of their communities.
Many libraries have created or hosted seed libraries in the past few years as part of their regular services.

“I was inspired by BASIL (Bay Area Seed Interchange Library) in Berkeley,” says Rebecca Newburn, a science teacher at Hall Middle School in Larkspur, California, and founder of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library at Richmond
Founder Rebecca Newburn helps a young patron explore the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in  Richmond, California. (Photo: Michelle Sixta,
Public Library. BASIL has been lending seeds for more than 15 years. “I love it, and I’d love to see something like that in more of a public space.”

Newburn talked to BASIL, and offered herself as a volunteer with the proviso that her ultimate goal was to learn enough to develop a seed library in nearby Richmond. That goal came to fruition in May 2010. Newburn says Richmond Grows was the seventh seed library in the United States, but that figure has now ballooned to more than 300, with many hosted by libraries.

Why libraries?

In Fairfield, recognizing the value of a seed library for the community was easy. “The healthy food movement is something that everyone is talking about,” says Mary Coe, Fairfield Woods branch reference librarian. “We think people want to be a part of it but don’t know how, but we can be a first step for people to get into that movement, because libraries are about discovery.”
Seed libraries can have a deeply practical economic benefit. “People are incredibly grateful to have access to seed,” says Newburn. “In a community that was hard hit economically, there are a lot of people who aren’t able to meet their family food budget. Being able to grow some food helps them provide food to their family that they couldn’t do without the free seed.”
“We can empower people by giving them the advantage of growing food,” adds Rachel Steiner, manager of Omaha (Nebr.) Public Library’s Benson branch, which is home to the Common Soil seed library. “We can tell people that produce is expensive, but if they have a little plot of land, they can help to feed their family.”
Seed libraries have a strong educational component as well. They attract gardeners of all experience levels, from novices to experts. “Humans have been saving seeds for generations, but in recent times many have forgotten,” says Rebecca Swanger, adult services librarian and volunteer coordinator at the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library, a member of the Cumberland County (Pa.) Library System, and head of the Simpson Seed Library.

At Hall Middle School in Larkspur, California, a group of 6th-graders established a seed library within the school library that directly 
A tomato tasting program proved to be a favorite community event at the Fairfield Woods seed library, bringing together about 45 people to see, taste, and discuss each other’s varieties.
supports the school’s 6th-grade science curriculum as a science project three years ago, says District Librarian Carol Halpern. Students learn about habitats and ecosystems in the school’s Food Forest, a garden designed to replicate natural ecosystems. “The seed library lets kids think about creating a habitat at home, so it’s a logical extension,” Halpern says.

“It’s been fun to watch kids think about what they might plant,” Halpern adds. “Who knows what that might spark? I think some of them will become pretty impressive gardeners.”
Libraries are perfectly positioned to provide the information necessary to support gardeners in their efforts. At the Benson branch, for example, the library offers a display of gardening books near the seeds. It also provides an array of library programming, including classes on seed saving; starting seeds indoors; planning gardens to prevent cross-pollination (which can produce hybrids not suitable for seed saving); learning about companion plants, composting, and pest control; preparing soil for planting; and winterizing a garden to prepare the soil for spring.

Green shoots

With hundreds of seed libraries operating in the United States, libraries that are interested in offering seeds should first know that they’re not alone. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Swanger says. She recommends the Richmond Grows website for its information on seed swaps, guidelines, and general operation of a seed library.
Common Soil’s website also offers a host of resources, as does
Overall costs for a seed library are fairly small. Common Soil spent about $2,000 in 2013, including stipends for program presenters and the costs of seeds, envelopes, and labels and barcodes. Costs grew to $2,500 in 2014, because of the library’s preparations to open seed libraries at two new branches.
There are several practical considerations and decisions to make when getting started. Perhaps most visible is where the seed library will be stored. In an elegant bit of reuse, the Simpson Seed Library is housed in an old card catalog donated by a retired librarian. Omaha Public Library also plans to use card catalogs for seed storage when it adds seed libraries at two more branches this year.
Many libraries have acquired seeds through donations. In Fairfield, for example, the local Comstock, Ferre & Co. has given the library 500 seed packets a year. But there is a decidedly local art to selecting seeds that are likely to work well in a seed library’s community.

“Most seed companies will typically sell what sells widely—seeds that can grow in a wide range of climates,” 
The Common Soil Seed Library in Nebraska organizes its seeds by how difficult they are to save: Green ones are easiest, while the red ones are recommended for experienced seed savers.
Newburn says. “Seed libraries can be more community focused.” That means that seed libraries can play a role in protecting a community’s food heritage by protecting local heirloom varieties—those unique varieties that may not succeed everywhere but that are well adapted to a community’s local climate.

Such heirloom varieties might require special policies. “A neighbor gave me a seed for Great, Great Aunt Rosie’s Italian pole bean, which has been in his family for decades,” Newburn says. “I don’t know of anyone who’s growing an heirloom bean like that, so we put in a real effort to save it.” When Richmond Grows gets local heirloom varieties like that, it reserves them for a special grow-out program that will allow only experienced gardeners to raise the plants and build up a population of seeds. Eventually, the library has enough to start lending, but it continues to steward those varieties to ensure they are available in the future.
Even more common seeds may not be appropriate for all gardeners. Some plants are more difficult to grow than others, requiring certain growing conditions, maintenance, or pest control. For example, Newburn says, peas and beans will usually self-pollinate before their flowers open, making it easy to save their seeds. Corn, on the other hand, requires a large population and hand-pollination to produce seeds that can be saved, which is generally impractical for a home gardener in an urban environment.
Halpern also says that students often need guidance about what seeds to grow, and when. Being in California, the school’s community has a longer growing season than many other states, but there are still limits. Tomatoes are popular, for example, but even in California they need to be planted in the spring.
“Some kids do want instant gratification and need to be persuaded of what will work,” Halpern says. The library offers information about every seed's needs and optimum planting and growing times.

Checkout policies

There’s a significant variety in checkout policies among seed libraries. Richmond Grows, for example, is highly informal. It operates on an honor system, with no library card needed. “We encourage people to take just what they need,” Newburn says.

In Omaha, on the other hand, seeds are cataloged. “Every envelope has a barcode, because we wanted them to be deliverable” to each of the system’s 12 
Annika and Jack, 7th-graders at Hall Middle School in Larkspur, California, show off the school’s seed lending library.
branches, Steiner says. Patrons can request seeds at any branch and have them delivered to their local branch just like a book or any other library material. The catalog automatically “checks in” the seeds the first day of each month and weeds them so they can’t be checked out again.

Patrons are limited to six packets per card per month, simply to ensure that everyone who wants seeds can get them. “It’s really not limiting,” Steiner says. “Six packets per month is a lot of seed if you start planning in the winter and if you have your whole family check out seeds.”
While returning seeds at the end of the growing season is part of the seed library concept, in practice that’s much less critical. “We tell users that returns are not a requirement,” Coe says. “We’re interested in helping people have a garden of some type. Even though we offer programs on seed saving, returning seeds isn’t critical.”
“Many of our patrons are new gardeners who don’t yet have the level of confidence where they think they can bring seeds back,” says Fairfield’s Coriaty. She says that about 15–20 of the more than 100 gardeners who checked seeds out last year returned some.

Sowing connections

Libraries don’t necessarily need gardening expertise on staff to successfully build and operate a seed library. Many seed libraries tap into active local gardening communities to provide classes and background information.
In Fairfield, for example, local master gardener Tovah Martin presented the seed library’s kickoff program. Another master gardener, library volunteer Eric Frisk, has offered several hands-on programs in the library’s community garden plot. Meanwhile, Coriaty has worked to build connections with related organizations to help spread the word about the seed library, including the Fairfield Organic Teaching Farm, the Fairfield Earth Day committee, and the local Grange.
“We felt that Fairfield Woods was a perfect place for all these groups to meet and get together,” Coe says. “We had a lot of meetings with them to determine how we could all work together to make this a really great thing in Fairfield."
The seed library has helped to build the local gardening community while strengthening other library relationships as well. For example, Coriaty works with a local senior center to offer a monthly book club. The director there received a grant to install a free-standing raised-bed garden that seniors could work at without having to bend over, and now the library provides seeds for that garden.
These connections can be a powerful promotional tool for seed libraries. “Gardeners are passionate about what they do, so when we told them about the seed library, they really spread the word,” Swanger says. This led to the Simpson Seed Library being featured in local newspaper columns and TV shows—although this may have been a mixed blessing, as it attracted the attention of the state Department of Agriculture (see sidebar).
In Omaha, the library talks to the leaders of local gardening groups, as well as farmers at the local farmer’s market and school teachers who visit the library. Next year, the library plans to reach out to the city’s refugee population.
“The city has four refugee gardens; the organizations that have helped them settle here have helped them get land to garden,” Steiner says. “We’re hoping to work with them to provide seeds—we know that many of them have seed-saving expertise.”
For other library users, seed libraries offer the chance to connect not just with their community but with their humanity. “We’re honoring the fact that seed is at the foundation of food, and food is at the foundation of culture,” Newburn says. “This is a way to celebrate our connection to the community and renew the tradition of seed saving that has been a part of our culture for 12,000 years.”
GREG LANDGRAF is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Seed libraries and state laws

The rise of seed libraries has been accompanied by plenty of enthusiasm from librarians and patrons. Cumberland County (Pa.) Library System’s Simpson Seed Library also attracted a whirlwind of controversy and misinformation last year after receiving a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (DOA), warning that the seed library might not comply with state law.
“We had initially checked with our county extension office, but apparently they hadn’t really thought about seed libraries through this particular lens,” says Jonelle Darr, executive director of Cumberland County Library System.
The library asked for a meeting with the Pennsylvania DOA through its state representative’s office, where both sides were able to discuss the law and understand how the seed library was operating. Ultimately, the Pennsylvania DOA proposed a solution, which the library accepted. Under this agreement, the library is free to distribute seeds, but it can’t accept harvested seeds without following the state’s testing and labeling requirements for seed distributors—which were designed for large distributors and wouldn’t be feasible for the library to undertake. The library is, however, free to host seed swaps where individual gardeners can exchange seeds with one another.
“Our concern is truth in labeling and consumer protection” to ensure that the seeds that are distributed are what they are portrayed as and viable to germinate, says Johnny Zook, seed program supervisor at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Different states have different seed laws, and Zook recommends that seed libraries visit the Association of American Seed Control Officials website to find their state’s seed control official. That individual will be able to help libraries operate in compliance with their state laws. “Open up a dialogue with your seed control official,” he says. “Being well informed and reaching out and communicating is probably the best thing you can do.”
“Sometimes I think people deal with sticky issues by not asking the questions because they don’t want the answers,” Darr says. Once the library sat down with the DOA, she adds, the situation was resolved pretty quickly.
As state laws vary, however, the situation may play out differently elsewhere. Duluth (Minn.) Public Library’s seed library was recently visited by the state over perceived violations of the state seed law’s requirements for labeling, germination testing, and permitting. The library is working with the state’s DOA to attempt to meet the law’s requirements.
One might argue that this type of state regulation shouldn’t apply to the small scale on which seed libraries operate. Rebecca Newburn of the Richmond Grows library offers alerts about legal matters that librarians can sign up for at She says the seed libraries movement is concerned with some state departments of agriculture interpretations of seed laws, and it plans to work to protect the right to save and share local seeds and, where necessary, to work to change the laws. For more information or to get involved, email Newburn at —G. L.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to survive a PhD viva: 17 top tips

Michael James Heron, school of computing science and digital media, Robert Gordon University

Handing in your PhD thesis is a massive achievement – but it’s not the end of the journey for doctoral students. Once you’ve submitted, you’ll need to prepare for the next intellectually-gruelling hurdle: a viva.
This oral examination is a chance for students to discuss their work with experts. Its formal purpose is to ensure that there’s no plagiarism involved, and that the student understands and can explain their thesis. It involves lots of penetrating questions, conceptually complex debates and is infamously terrifying. 
How can PhD students best prepare? We asked a number of academics and recent survivors for their tips.

Preparing for the viva

1) Check your institution’s policies and practices
Institutional policies and practices vary. Find out who will attend your viva (eg will a supervisor attend, will there be an independent chair?) and what their roles are.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
2) Re-read your thesis – and keep up-to-date with research
Don’t underestimate the amount of time the examiners will have spent reading and thinking about your thesis – however, you should remember that you are still likely to be the “expert in the room” on this particular topic. Check to see if any relevant recent papers have emerged since submitting the thesis and, if so, read these.
Dianne Berry, dean of postgraduate research studies, University of Reading
3) As an examiner, you tend to stick to things you’re an expert in when driving the questioning
Your viva panel will consist of an external expertise in your subject area and an internal which may be in a subject field associated or directly related to yours. The external examiner is the one who mainly calls and fires all the shots and so it’s pretty important to have a knowledge of their published contributions, especially those that are related to your thesis in any way.
Dr Bhavik Anil Patel, senior lecturer in physical and analytical chemistry
4) Think about what you will or won’t defend
Consider carefully what you will defend to the hilt in the viva, and what you are prepared to concede. It’s important to defend your claims about the originality of the thesis and its contribution to knowledge. However, no research is perfect, and showing that you have considered what could have been done differently, or even better, is not a bad thing.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
5) Draw up lists of possible questions – especially ones you dread
I collected questions from a bunch of different places (listed here) which I then tailored to my PhD. Somebody I worked with also recommended that I put together my 10 nightmare questions. I found this really useful, by writing down and thinking about my dreaded questions, they were no longer so bad – it was almost as if I’d faced the beast.
Generally speaking, I was able to predict the questions that I was asked. There were a couple that were unexpected but they were either conceptual points or based on literature that I just didn’t know.
Richard Budd, research assistant, University of Bristol who sat his viva in summer 2014 and has blogged about the experience
6) It’s not like sitting at a laptop where you can edit a sentence as you go along
By the time you finish your PhD you’ll know your thesis inside out. One of the things you won’t be as practised at is talking about it. When I was preparing for my viva, I practised vocalising answers. It’s not a case of needing to learn to answers verbatim – this would only work as a technique if you could guarantee the exact way your examiner will ask a question – but it is about thinking about how you will articulate certain things. A viva isn’t like sitting at a laptop where you can edit a sentence as you go along. 
Richard Budd, research assistant, University of Bristol who sat his viva in summer 2014 and has blogged about the experience
7) Bring a printed copy that is exactly the same as that of your examiners
Ensure you and your supervisor have a printed copy that is exactly the same as that of your examiners (specifically the same pagination). Mark with tabs the key sections and highlight for reference important quotes and points you might want to refer to. If you have some key diagrams it may help to have these printed larger on A4 sheets that can be used in a discussion.
There is a chance, albeit slim, that an examiner will wish to see some piece of experimental data, software, or other supporting evidence. Have this all neatly archived and accessible. You can do this after submission.
Anthony Finkelstein, dean of the UCL faculty of engineering sciences who hasblogged about surviving vivas

During the viva

8) Get off to a good start
Give a few detailed answers in the opening 15 minutes, demonstrating knowledge, describing your thinking and working - then the examiners are likely to relax into the viva. If the first few answers are short and non-specific, not demonstrating knowledge, this can begin to raise concerns, and that can set the tone for the whole viva. This is avoidable.
Rowena Murray, author of How to Survive Your Viva: Defending a Thesis in an Oral Examination
9) Prepare for the icebreaker
Every viva opens with that dreaded icebreaker that is supposed to break you in gently but often seems to be the thing that gets students into a pickle. It’s so basic, students almost forget about it. Most often this would be to give a five to 10 minute introduction to your work and your key findings. This is such a common question that not preparing for it would be silly.
Dr Bhavik Anil Patel, senior lecturer in physical and analytical chemistry
10) Silence doesn’t mean bad news
Don’t assume that you will be given any indication of the outcome at the start of the viva. The examiners may or may not offer comments on the thesis at this stage and candidates should not interpret a lack of comments at this point as a negative sign. In some cases institutional policy prohibits it. 
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
11) Don’t point out your own weaknesses
Avoid shooting yourself in the foot by highlighting the weaknesses in the thesis by being overly humble (eg “I didn’t think this would be an acceptable piece of research given the way I handled x or y”) or by saying what you “failed to achieve” or “did not manage to carry out in a robust manner” etc. Leave that to the examiners to pick up in their reading, they don’t need help.
Dr Mariana Bogdanova, lecturer in management, Queen’s University Belfast
12) Don’t talk like a politician
There’s a danger of trying to over-prepare. Don’t learn answers off by heart – it removes the spontaneity and is obvious to examiners. If a student has pre-prepared answers they become a bit like politicians, answering questions they weren’t asked rather than the ones they were. I have come across mixed views on mock vivas. Some people really like them – and they can settle nerves – but other times it can remove spontaneity and steal your thunder.
Jerry Wellington, head of research degrees at University of Sheffield and author of Succeeding with Your Doctorate
13) You may need to move from friendly questions to complex debates
Vivas can appear friendly and then suddenly go very conceptually complex. The language used is an alternation between accessible normal language and really specialised arguments. The student needs to be able to move orally between the two.
Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at Brighton University
14) If things get on top of you, use the excuse of having a look at the thesis
Make sure that before the viva you get plenty of sleep, eat properly and de-stress. If things get too much when you’re in there, use the excuse of having to look something up in your thesis. You could also pause and say “Can I write that down for a moment?” Stall for time until you get yourself back together again.
Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at Brighton University
15) Focus on your contribution
One of the most important things that the examiners will be looking for in your thesis, is the “contribution to knowledge”. It is the contribution which makes your work doctoral level. Be sure that you understand exactly what your contribution is, and that you are able to express and explain it clearly and concisely.
Write it down in a paragraph. Discuss it with you supervisor and fellow students. Make sure that you can relate your contribution to other work in your field and that you are able to explain how your work is different.
Peter Smith, author of The PhD Viva
16) Expect your viva to last between one and three hours
Students frequently ask how long the viva is likely to be. Obviously they vary. Discipline differences are important. Our research suggests that most natural and applied sciences vivas were completed in one to three hours, whereas arts, humanities and social science vivas were typically less than two hours long. In the natural and applied sciences 43% of vivas lasted two hours or less, compared to 83% in arts, humanities and social sciences.
Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, authors of The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors
17) Enjoy it
The best advice I ever got was “Try to enjoy it”. It seemed ludicrous at the time, but I actually found myself really getting into the discussion as the viva went on. It’s one of the earliest chances you get to talk to someone who not only informed your research (ideally) but is also conversant with your own. It’s a great chance to explore the contours of your research – treat it as such, and it doesn’t seem quite
so daunting.