Meg Gray is in charge of science and technology at the Portland Public Library. We called her to learn more about the fledging seed saving/sharing program she’s running at the library and ended up learning about many other things (this often happens while talking to librarians), including a new backpack program for adults designed to give library patrons a leg up on stargazing, birding and hiking.

SEED CATALOG: The Maine native began leading the science team at the library last year, a job that included the responsibility of managing the new seed library. Although she likes gardening (last summer she grew green beans, eggplants “and everything but Brussels sprouts” in the city’s Common Share Community Garden on the Eastern Promenade) she admits she didn’t know much about seed saving. Taking a workshop at the library with one of Maine’s best known seed savers, Will Bonsall, helped. “I learned so much about keeping that collection viable.” And about the complications of saving seeds. They’re delicate, and sorting them from the edible harvest “can be laborious.”

COLD STORAGE: After the Bonsall workshop, Gray made sure the library acquired a freezer for storing the seeds. Right now the library’s collection features seeds for easy growing crops. Among the seeds on hand are Early Frosty Shell Peas and Italian parsley – an herb so hardy that you have to actively try to kill it, in our experience – as well as parsnips. She’s buying some seeds this spring, to give the collection a boost, but this fall she’ll focus on streamlining the process of getting more kinds of seeds into the library by identifying master gardeners in the area who can help foster rare and heritage variety seeds. “That will be my big project.”

CHECK THIS OUT: Do you actually check the seeds out? Yes, up to four packets a month. You need to have a Portland library card in good standing and a willingness to try to save seeds yourself to bring back into the system in the fall. Patrons are just learning about the seed library, which is housed at the reference desk on the lower floor of the main library on Monument Square. Gray said. “They come into ask about Instant Pots or a new permaculture trend and say, ” ‘I didn’t know you had seeds!’ ” It’s one of the pleasures of Gray’s job that she gets to facilitate that kind of “serendipitous discovery.”

BACKPACKS IN THE STACKS: Speaking of discovery, another major undertaking Gray came up with is just hitting the shelves this week, a set of backpacks designed for adults who want to explore nature in Maine but maybe aren’t ready to commit to a hobby. Or can’t afford it: “Often there is a barrier to entry.” The kits, funded through a Cornerstones for Science grant, are dubbed the Discover ME backpacks (as in Discover Maine). They are built around three themes popular with patrons: astronomy, birding and hiking. The packs mimic a program for kids that began in 2015, but feature some higher-tech (translation, more expensive) equipment. Like a good pair of binoculars in the birding pack, with a harness to make toting them around easier, and a few books on Maine birds. The stargazing pack comes with a blanket, books, a head lamp for looking at the books, sky chart and a set of binoculars for looking at the night sky.

RULES AND REGULATIONS: These sound swell. Is there a fee for checking them out? No! “You have to sign a waiver to take good care of everything and bring all the pieces back. And you have to have a card in good standing.” Spoken like a true librarian. How did she get to be one of those? As an undergraduate at Alfred University in upstate New York (she graduated in 2006), Gray majored in fine arts, with a minor in women’s studies. Her senior thesis was about sex education and public policy – “which was really hot at the time,” and she enjoyed the research so much she suspected she was destined for graduate school. But in what? She got a great tip from one of her thesis advisors. “Graduate school will always be there,” the teacher told her. “You don’t have to do it now.” She listened, but within a few years, she had a quiet revelation: “I think I really want to work in a library.” She went on to earn her library science degree from McGill University in Montreal.


SCIENTIFIC MATTERS: Gray wanted to come back to Maine, and she knew she wanted to live in a city for the convenience factor. (“I grew up in a house where we couldn’t get pizza delivered.”) Her first gig at the Portland Library was as a substitute staffer. She did some part-time work on service desks – and worked for Dandelion Catering – but the chance to run the science team felt like a great fit. “Because I love science. And I’m an active person raised by sportsmen.”

HAPPY CAMPER: Gray grew up in Milford, very near the Old Town Library, which benefited from gifts from Tabitha and Stephen King. “I was really lucky. I grew up within walking distance of that library, and I loved it. When she wasn’t reading or making use of the VHS tape collection at the library, she spent a lot of time camping with her family. “My father hunted and fished and still does. We were not like a Disneyland or time share kind of family.” Instead, they headed out in the pop-up camper. The family tradition continues, but instead of sleeping in campers, now they might rent a place, as they did last summer, on the shores of Moosehead. “I am a terrible fisherwoman, but I think it is more about spending time outside.”

EXCELLENT EXTRAVAGANCE: What’s the most exciting library purchase Gray has made recently? Besides the freezer, of course. The two-volume set of 19th-century Brunswick botanist Kate Furbish’s drawings and paintings, “Plants and Flowers of Maine: Kate Furbish’s Watercolors.” (It’s not cheap, the library paid about $350 for it, Gray said.) “Her love of science is so different from what we think of now,” Gray says. Furbish was a freelancer before such a thing existed, roaming the state to see and record its flora, mostly unrecognized in her lifetime and nearly forgotten after it until recently. “She was the ultimate citizen scientist.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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Twitter: MaryPols


CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1 p.m. on April 3 to correct the name of the backpack program for adults at the library. It also includes the amount the library paid for the Kate Furbish two-volume set. 

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