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.
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:
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.