Creating conditions where others grow and flourish

This article, by Jeff McWhorter, was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on December 19, 2022.

The Roman philosopher Cicero is often cited as having written, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” This is a lovely sentiment and, if I am speaking for myself, it is mostly accurate. As the manager of El Río Library, a big part of my energy that does not go to my small, but mighty branch, is spent contributing to our system-wide Seed Library. I’m not sure there are two spaces in my own life that are more fulfilling, nurturing, and enlivening than the contents of a newly discovered bookshelf or a freshly prepared garden bed. 

My motivations for becoming a public librarian were straightforward. I love reading, learning, and sharing—cultivating ideas, things, and relationships. These are not necessarily prerequisites for public librarianship, but as you can imagine, they help.

Foremost though, I believe in free and equitable access to all manner of information, knowledge, and resources for all community members. Libraries are civic spaces where accessibility, inclusion, accountability, transparency, and a commitment to growing the social good guides the institutions’ daily work and future trajectory. The El Río Library patronage sets the agenda for much of our efforts, and we support them on terms, which they help shape, based on this community’s unique needs and goals.

Come see us at El Río, check out the beautiful historic murals, and our staff will be happy to share some resources with you about how a group of determined Tucsonenses sacrificed and fought to make this public space a reality for future generations. This library, and the larger El Río Center, is in part a special testament to how necessary access to public resources and social movement for those social goods are interrelated. We need institutions like libraries to foster strong communities. We need strong communities prepared to participate and advocate for themselves in building towards their potential.

Let us return to agriculture. Cicero’s observation about gardens and libraries is actually a little different from what is usually published. His famous quote was adapted from a letter that he wrote to his friend Varro and the literal translation is, “If you have a garden in your library, everything will be complete.”

In my mind, El Río Library is like the fertile plot that Cicero envisioned. El Río staff are always doing our best to carefully and conscientiously tend to the precious and diverse needs of our patrons. When I am in my garden, I listen to and observe my plants. Do they need more water, fertilizer, or sun? Perhaps I need to offer them some encouraging words for them to reach upwards from the soil.

In the library, working with patrons feels similar. We offer public health resources, the tools to successfully apply for a job, guidance towards their language learning goals, an application for voter registration, the special interlibrary loan book they ordered, or even direction towards some seeds to start their first garden. Did I mention we have an actual Seed Library where we distribute free seeds and beginning instructions for getting started as a gardener?! Working in the library—doing outreach and distributing books to young readers, sharing recommendations for reliable community institutions, or assisting a patron in completing an application for social services—all of this is seeding for a healthy community.

So, as you can see, the garden is a part of our effort towards a complete library system in service to everyone accessing all that they require. Come in and see us at the library if you have a need, and we will do our best to support you in creating the conditions for you and yours to grow and flourish.

Jeff McWhorter is the managing librarian at El Rio Library. In addition to being a member of the Seed Library, he serves on the Bookbike and Welcome to America teams. In his spare time, he enjoys cycling and gardening, which is where he says, “The magic happens.”