Against Accreditation

I attend a school of library and information science that has not been accredited by the American Library Association. Sources tend to agree: this fact makes me at best naïve, at worst unhirable—and a sucker either way.*

I was aware of the accreditation status of my program when I applied, and I thought I understood the stakes. That changed when I was having breakfast at a conference last year. Fortunate enough to find myself among a group of smart leaders with snappy titles, I prepared myself to sit quietly and bask in the presence of expertise. However, as so often happens in our surpassingly generous and surprisingly gregarious profession, someone brought me into the conversation. The mention of my program led to a discussion of its accreditation status and an unexpected exclamation from one of the leaders at the table: “Oh, don’t worry: accreditation is stupid! It’s worse than pointless.” The conversation came to an end soon after, and we hurried off to various morning sessions. That comment stuck with me though.

For the last year, I’ve been pondering accreditation—and confronting everyone I can with some version of that anecdote in order to understand why a prominent career librarian would so openly, so passionately deride the process by which our foremost professional organization validates the institutions dedicated to training its next generation.

Kevin Hart is Surprised

Yep, that’s the face I made. Thanks, Kevin Hart.

Alright, when I put it like that, it sounds pretty bad. But here’s the thing: I’ve learned from my conversations that accreditation is a contested subject right now.

The American Library Association Office for Accreditation has primary responsibility for development, maintenance, and oversight of the accreditation process. However, the Committee on Accreditation also bears responsibility for “the execution of the accreditation program of ALA,” including the charge to “develop and formulate standards of education for library and information studies.” Additionally, the Task Force on the Accreditation Process and Communication and the Task Force on the Context of Future Accreditation have been charged with information gathering and recommendation making relative to their respective missions. In fact, you may have received the same survey request I did a few months ago—or one like it. Here’s a bootleg screenshot to jog your overloaded memory:

Accreditation Survey

The world in general may not be particularly interested in the accreditation of librarians and other information professionals, but members of the American Library Association certainly are.

Really, I shouldn’t be surprised. Because librarians are not licensed by any authority, either state or federal, the only standards for acceptable education are imposed by general consent. ALA accreditation matters because employers list graduation from an accredited institution of higher learning as a requirement on job descriptions. Those employers, generally themselves graduates of accredited programs, require the same standard of education and expertise of their hires that was required of them. There are likely many reasons for this, but, quite regardless of what they are, the widespread enforced requirement that applicants for library and information science positions possess a degree from an accredited institution empowers the American Library Association with a kind of de facto secondary licensing power. That’s a lot of power.

Let’s be clear, there are good arguments in favor of accreditation. First among them is that it maintains a baseline standard of proficiency for those entering the profession (that’s you and me, kiddo). Additionally, accreditation by a unifying body allows the stable maintenance of professional values. We learn in library school to value and why to value things like universal access, freedom of inquiry, privacy, and advocacy. The American Library Association is an organization of librarians and other information professionals dedicated to promoting and supporting librarians and other information professionals. The values uncovered by task forces and articulated in committees reflect our best collective wisdom.

There are equally strong, equally well-intentioned arguments against accreditation, however. A baseline standard of proficiency can very easily become a goal, which is different. And the shared values propagated by a large, powerful organization may end up drowning out minority opinions. The argument against accreditation is an argument against the stifling of innovation, against the maintenance of a status quo, against the unintentional diminishment of our work as information professionals in an era that requires expansion.

Accreditation is good when it holds us together and urges us to continual improvement. Accreditation is bad when its standards become a ceiling rather than a floor, when its traditions are used to exclude new or unusual ideas, and when the process of accrediting becomes tainted by competitiveness, possessiveness, or other biases.

I am a fan of the American Library Association—and I am a member. Having been a member of several other professional organizations in my life, I appreciate the integrity and the respect that, in my experience, characterize the ALA. But I also think it may be time for accreditation to be a shared responsibility. As a student, I have been supported by the many resources of the American Library Association. I have also, however, found a more accurate description of my work and a more thoroughly articulated version of my values with the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP). I have colleagues who feel much the same about the Special Librarians Association (SLA). The Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) has expressed “the desire to take active part” in the accreditation process with the ALA. I think it may be time.

For sure, it’s time for us as students to weigh in on the subject of accreditation. The ALA is listening. We need to reach out to the Office of Accreditation and to the staff at our universities that handles accreditation—those who represent minority groups (of one kind or another) most of all. If we’re going to accept that accreditation status is among the first things students should look for in a school of library of information science, then we should be as engaged as possible in the accreditation process, from design to execution.

 


* Lest you worry unnecessarily about my fate, kind reader, rest assured that my program is actually provisionally accredited. Having rebooted three years ago, we’re still working through the multi-year process of first-time accreditation.  When at last the school is successfully accredited—God and the spirit of old man Dewey willing—we’ll all be retroactively covered.

Thanks for the cover image to Ryan McGuire, a designer with beautiful spirit. (CC 2.0 BY)

10 replies

  1. Every job I’ve applied for (40+ positions) has required an ALA accredited degree. When non-librarians are hiring they look for easy ways to know a “real librarian” and having a rubber stamp on your program is an easy way. For me, this sealed my decision to go to an accredited school — I didn’t want my resume on the rejection pile just because I went to a non-accredited school! It’s hard enough to get a job 🙂

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    • Speaking from the perspective of an academic library where librarians are tenure-track faculty, it’s not just a rubber stamp of a “real librarian”. It’s the certification we need to be in compliance with our accrediting body. Faculty must have a terminal degree recognized by their discipline, so as long as ALA accreditation is considered the standard, that’s what my university’s accrediting body expects library faculty to have.

      I’m chairing a search this fall, and raised the idea of expanding that to “ALA accredited or equivalent,” and got an earful about how difficult it would be to evaluate and prove equivalence. I was able to make the argument to include “ALA-recognized equivalents”, using this list – http://www.ala.org/educationcareers/employment/foreigncredentialing/foremployers. But that’s as far as I was able to get anyone above me to budge.

      I don’t know about the rationale at universities where librarians are staff or at public libraries. But since I don’t see our accrediting body changing any time soon, we’re locked in to this system… So I agree that students should be as engaged as possible with pushing to improve LIS programs, and making sure that, as the author put it, accreditation standards are treated as a floor, not a ceiling.

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    • I think your reasoning is totally valid, Alexandra–and not uncommon.

      You raise an interesting issue too: the value of accreditation is ultimately sustained by the practices of hiring managers. Whatever reasons they have for requiring education completed at an institution accredited by the ALA, that requirement is what gives the issue teeth.

      As Angela mentions in her reply though, there are many reasons accreditation comes into play for library and information science program graduates.

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  2. I teach at an accredited school. The effort to stand for accreditation is 100% for the students AND the people who use the libraries where graduates will work. The process requires self-analysis,engagement with people in the field and a level of faculty participation that I believe enhances the total program. Would the larger accrediting entity (in my case SACS) create such a level of involvement? I don’t think so. My colleagues in unaccredited academic depts. hardly notice that process. Some faculty would, I think, like to end accreditation as it is so much work. I think that the opportunity to be reflective about what we do on a 7 year schedule is well worth the time. The ALA Committee on Accreditation as well as the External Review Panel Members provide value to the students and the field by their voluntary service. Accreditation is so easily a focus of needlessness, but truly gives back to you and the field in an intensity and self-analysis that would not take place in the general course of academic life.

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    • I didn’t mention it in the article because it was a little too far beyond my experience, but the workload associated with the accreditation process was a factor that came up in more than one of my conversations with faculty and administrators. The process is apparently perceived by almost everyone as pretty onerous–either appropriately or unnecessarily, depending on perspective. I know at my school quite a bit of time and ink has been dedicated to accreditation.

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      • But it isn’t onerous. It helps faculty be better. I am sure a few medical school or law school faculty don’t like their accreditation process–extra work every 7 years– but it means your faculty is thoughtful about what we do, how we engage. We guarantee the field that this time is taken to deliberate.

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  3. Jay, I’ve been thinking about your post a lot over the past week. Earlier this year, my program underwent our re-accreditation process. At the end of the day, our accreditation was renewed, but not without recommendations for improvement from the committee. In a certain light, it’s easy to see accreditation as an either-or situation (and more many schools it is just that). I think it’s equally fair to treat accreditation as a conversation between stakeholders, that of specific programs and a larger professional community–both of which have a vested interest in the success of the other.

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    • I agree, Kristina.

      The process of accreditation is meant to foster reflection, self-analysis, critical discussion, and positive change. That process is necessarily time consuming and—almost by definition—challenging. Accreditation is, after all, the process of evaluation, justification, and certification. All of that work is healthy, even when it is also hard.

      The issue that concerns me most at present is whether the conversations about LIS education that the accreditation process fosters should be happening only between academic institutions and the ALA. There are alternatives to the kind of single-body-oversight that is now the norm in library and information science. Put more simply: there are more stakeholders in LIS education than the ALA and the schools it validates; I think it may be time for those other invested groups to have a more direct connection to the accreditation process as well.

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