- Librarians as Stewards of Place
Several years ago, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) began to emphasize the idea of “stewardship of place” as a critical facet of the mission of the academy. While public engagement has always been a value in higher education, events in the early twenty-first century have given it a new urgency. In a seminal report from 2002, the AASCU Task Force on Public Engagement wrote that there continues to be a
need for America’s colleges and universities to more aggressively and creatively engage society’s most pressing challenges. Our economy is in the midst of a technology-driven transformation; our population is aging and diversifying; our shores are threatened as never before by the specter of global terrorism—and the list goes on. Increasingly, the public looks to its colleges and universities to respond. The term “public engagement” has become shorthand for describing a new era of two-way partnerships between America’s colleges and universities and the publics they serve.1
While these words were written fourteen years ago, they continue to resonate today. A follow-up publication, Becoming a Steward of Place, issued by the AASCU in 2014, emphasized the continuing relevance of community partnerships and civic relationships to higher education.2 But the first AASCU publication on this topic did not mention libraries at all, and the second did so only in passing. Other (nonlibrary) literature on stewardship of place in the academy is similarly silent vis-à-vis libraries, although the literature of academic librarianship includes a number of articles that describe and extol community engagement.3 Academic librarians might rightly ask ourselves if we truly belong in the ranks of those who would label themselves “stewards of place.”
Why Stewardship of Place in the Academic Library?
The AASCU describes stewardship of place as a commitment to build “direct, two-way interaction with communities and other external constituencies through the development, exchange, and application of knowledge, information, and expertise for mutual benefit.”4 A simpler way to describe this core value of the academy is to say that “institutions can help their communities by working with them in more and varied ways.”5 Key [End Page 663] concepts related to public engagement, again according to the AASCU, are a commitment to the surrounding neighborhood, interactivity, mutual benefits to the institution and the community, and an integration of civic engagement so that it permeates every level of the university. Examples on a broad level are applied research, service learning projects, and community forums. A narrower example—and certainly a timely one—are the presidential debates held on college and university campuses. October 2016 will see debates between the major candidates for president of the United States at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia; Hofstra University on Long Island, New York; Washington University in St. Louis; and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
Some librarians might see stewardship of place as simply a trend that will soon go out of fashion. Others might view it as just another way to talk about community engagement, and thus dismiss it as “old wine in new wineskins.” It is certainly true that the “stewards of place” movement is a continuation of decades-old attempts to bridge the perceived chasm between “town and gown” (the community and the academy). But stewardship of place reflects an important linguistic shift in the way that we in the academy think about civic engagement. Instead of focusing on what the community can do for us, or even on what is mutually beneficial, the language of stewardship implies that we in the academy have a responsibility to the community. As stewards, we have an obligation to look after the public good and to care for the needs of the people who have entrusted us with so much. Stewardship of place should not be taken lightly, because it is potentially a powerful force for societal change. And the recent economic challenges (some might even view them as threats) to higher education mean that community support is more important than ever. College and university libraries must not abdicate their part in this process, nor minimize their possible...