In Praise of a Community-centered Approach in the Garden and the Archives

By Leah Richardson


Photograph of author Leah Richardson.
Leah Richardson

Gardening is a labor of love, but labor nonetheless. There is a seemingly endless amount of tending and care that goes into making something grow, and there is not a guarantee that this work will result in something beautiful or nourishing. I find gardening metaphors useful when thinking about most activities, especially librarianship. This is an essay about building a special collections instruction program within a larger research library and how I think about this in much the same way I think about gardening: as a collective, cultural, and experimental activity. 

As a special collections professional my work is grounded in a commitment to increase awareness and use of special collections materials, to promote inclusive access to cultural heritage materials, and to cultivate opportunities for collaboration with library colleagues, faculty, and community partners. As such, I think that we, as a special collections profession or field, can benefit from the thought exercise of seeing our work with regard to instruction programs as similar to the principles and practices of community gardening. We can  adopt some of these guiding principles in our work. 

A community garden is understood here as a single plot of land within a larger expanse that is collectively cared for and cultivated. The American Community Garden Association describes a community garden as a place to grow “flowers, vegetables or community.”[1] In other words, a community garden is just as much (if not more) about building relationships and communities as it is about planting and harvesting. A programmatic approach to special collections instruction, in order to grow, ought to be just as focused on the community around it (within and external to the library) as it is about the materials and course subjects and number of sessions and participants.

For me, smart growth in this arena is holistic and strategic; it considers the goals of the organization and the people within the organization. If we are going to continue to grow the reach and impact of primary source instruction, we have to be mindful of the impact of growth on the people leading these efforts. I am speaking to and from the conditions that many academic librarians work in: lean staffing models, high-demand, and a need to demonstrate value and impact with numbers. Growth is usually thought of in terms of more and bigger and almost always quantified. I want to acknowledge that growth for the sake of growth runs the risk of overextending our labor, reducing our value as librarian-educators, and diminishing the learning experience for students. 

A programmatic approach to special collections instruction, in order to grow, ought to be just as focused on the community around it (within and external to the library) as it is about the materials and course subjects and number of sessions and participants.

But this is not an essay about the carework of instruction or labor practices in higher education or work-life balance, even though it probably should be. I will focus instead on the principles of community gardening as a useful way to think about libraries’ and special collections’ instruction programs. I want to encourage us to think of ourselves as gardeners, our departments and programs as plots of varying quality and size, and our libraries as the community gardens in which we (hopefully) thrive. 

The Library as Community Garden

My evolution as a special collections instruction librarian has been similar to my evolution as a gardener. I was initially overconfident, overly ambitious, and ultimately exhausted and with not much to show for my efforts. With experience I am now more grounded and know what I can reasonably take on to be successful, whether seeds or subjects, and my confidence rests in setting limits and boundaries for the goals and the work. I know that I cannot accommodate more than two different classes in a day by myself, I don’t shy away from honesty when it comes to the goals and objectives faculty sometimes set for a special collections visit, and I don’t feel the need as strongly as I once did to be the lead of every class. I want my colleagues to feel empowered to teach with archives and rare books, and I want faculty to be able to use the materials without my constant supervision. 

Seeing the community around me as a key to success is one of the best things that experience has taught me in gardening and librarianship. The goal of community gardens is primarily about building community. The benefits of a community garden extend well beyond food, nutrition, and education and offer a place for folks to gather, learn new skills, reclaim land, and build relationships. There are both immediate and long-term benefits when community-building is the goal rather than a means to an end. I like to think about the library as the community garden and the special collections instruction program as a plot or raised bed within this garden. 

Our special collections instruction program is intentionally collaborative, involving multiple staff within the department and across the library in leading instruction efforts. Over the last few years, my special collections colleagues and I have been working to find our voice and place within the wider organization. We wanted both to bring colleagues into our work and to seek out the ways in which we can support the work of colleagues in other units. Staff in special collections routinely teach information literacy and database instruction sessions; we are not limited to teaching with archives and rare books. In terms of special collections-specific instruction, we are now more often than not co-teaching with subject specialists. 

Seeing the community around me as a key to success is one of the best things that experience has taught me in gardening and librarianship.

However, we have taken it a step further than had previously been the case: colleagues from other departments do more than just co-teach; they promote archives instruction, they learn the collections, they lead sessions on their own that incorporate archives and rare books, and they participate in all aspects of the labor of instruction from selection to set-up to clean-up. Adding these features changes the nature of this collaborative work, the intellectual and physical labor. It has also had a positive impact on the culture of instruction and the work of de-siloing special collections in two important ways: 1) it de-centers the notion of expertise, that the intellectual work is the sole domain of archivists, and 2) it makes the physical work more manageable, allowing us to say “yes” to more classes. 

This local, community-centered approach is how we grow as a program and as an organization. We have helped to develop a community of practice around instruction where a diverse group of people gather to share and learn skills and build relationships in the service of creating more meaningful learning experiences for students. 

Tending the Plot within the Community Garden

When I consider the community garden as a metaphor for the library and the successes we have had, two key elements emerge: the boundedness of the plots and the collaborative work of maintaining the garden overall. I have discussed the collaborative aspect so I turn now to the benefits of bounded plots. 

Raised beds are ancient in origin and popular among gardeners, farmers, and conservationists for many reasons: they are easier to maintain, prevent erosion, provide a longer growing season, are more economical, and have clearly defined boundaries making them ideal for a community or school garden.  I see the library as the community garden and special collections as a raised bed within that garden. It is a raised bed in the sense that our instruction program does have structured boundaries, we can only contain so much. But that doesn’t mean we can’t produce substantial growth or something beautiful. We can be selective in what we grow: a mix of classes and styles for teaching (one-off, multi-session visits, semester long), and we can experiment from year to year without risking the loss, or erosion, of our foundation.

A bounded plot also allows one to sow a diversity of plants and flowers and to experiment with what works and what does not work on a smaller, more contained scale–a mix of perennials and annuals, flowers and vegetables as it were–to see where something is likely to grow, and if some things fail to grow then failure is less devastating. 

The special collections instruction program is a fertile place to cultivate diversity; diverse in terms of the classes, the materials, the students, the activities and objectives, and the staff who provide instruction. We have a set of boundaries in place that help us manage our capacity. The boundaries include limits on the amount of people we can fit in our classroom spaces, the hours that the room and staff are available, the amount of materials that can be used, and the requirement that there be defined learning outcomes for classes. The boundaries are meant to contain the demand on staff, but still allow for flexibility. Within these boundaries we can experiment with teaching styles and activities, as well as collaborative arrangements. 

Growing sustainable instruction programs requires us to think deeply about our commitments and our capacity.


Libraries, like farms and gardens, are subject to environmental, social, and political climates. A diversity of crops, a community of people to tend to the work, and shared knowledge and resources are essential for production, growth, and sustainability. We are at a moment in libraries and archives where sustainability has become a central consideration for decision making on issues such as collections, preservation, space, and labor. Growing sustainable instruction programs requires us to think deeply about our commitments and our capacity. Inspired by the community garden movement of the last century, I am suggesting a local approach wherein we ask: what works best given our conditions? What grows well in certain climates may not in others. At the same time, we have to consider our small departments as important parts of a larger ecosystem. As with gardening, there are many directions to go and advice from every perspective. We can, however, begin by growing our communities and making community building the goal as a way to establish strong roots. 

[1] What is a community garden? American Community Garden Association, 2007. Archived December 4, 2007 at the Wayback Machine;  accessed on June 17, 2019:

Leah Richardson is a special collections librarian at the George Washington University and is interested in community engagement, critical librarianship, and labor.

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