Gavia Libraria

The fate of small library schools?

The loss of ALA accreditation at the small library school at Southern Connecticut State University made the rounds on Twitter today. (The links in the news article to correspondence regarding the school’s accreditation are worth following for anyone interested in how library schools are assessed.)

This is not the Loon’s first brush with accreditation loss, actual or potential, in the last little while. A graduate from a school threatened with accreditation loss emailed the Loon’s Boring Alter Ego asking what could be done, and what the consequences to students and graduates would be. In truth, the Loon had scant comfort to offer; she tried to be as reassuring as she could.

Someone more research-minded than the Loon might make a profitable study of working librarians’ notions of accreditation. The Loon would be most curious to know how they think accreditation works and what it accomplishes. For what it is worth, then, a short summary of the process.

Re-accreditation of a given accredited school occurs once every seven years. To be re-accredited, a school must submit a lengthy self-study (called the “Program Presentation”) attesting to its adherence to the Standards for Accreditation. These Standards underwent review in 2008, with a final report in 2009, but as best the Loon can tell no action has been taken with respect to the content of that final report. The 2008 Standards are therefore the accreditation standards of record.

ALA’s Committee on Accreditation sees an outline of the self-study containing lists of evidence the school plans to produce some months before the self-study is due; they may comment on it and ask for additional evidence if they wish. The self-study should be run past professional communities for comment before it is formally submitted to ALA CoA, but this does not necessarily mean it will be made public; that is left to the discretion of the school.

Once the self-study is in, an external review panel consisting of volunteer professionals and faculty visits the school for a few days. The school is informed in advance who will be on the panel, in part so that it can declare any potential conflicts of interest for CoA’s adjudication. The visit ends with a private exit briefing, during which the panel explains its tentative conclusions to school personnel. After the visit, the panel writes a report of its findings for CoA.

CoA then decides what to do based on the self-study and the panel report. Essentially, it has two options: it may re-accredit the school, or it may issue a Notice of Concern placing the school under conditional accreditation. It is not possible for a school to lose its accreditation without warning and an opportunity to fix whatever CoA believes is wrong. The Notice explains the problems CoA sees, and directs the school to document its amelioration of those problems. CoA can subsequently remove accreditation if the school does not respond acceptably to the content of the Notice.

Now, then. The Loon hypothesizes that small library schools—which she will tentatively define as those graduating fewer than 90 students per year—will lose accreditation or dwindle away at a significant rate in the coming decade. Observations contributing to her hypothesis include:

  • The growth of distance programs. Before distance education, any state that wanted degreed librarians needed a library school fairly close by. This is abundantly no longer true; given the choice between a marginal program close by, and a broader or more prestigious distance program, many students will choose distance. Library schools cannot therefore slide on perceived geographic need. The Loon has already seen a bit of evidence that at least one smaller, face-to-face-only school may be facing a serious admissions shortfall.
  • The demand for comprehensive curricula. The Loon has noted before the diversification of the information professions. Despite her eager approval of this phenomenon, she cannot but admit the problems posed for small library schools by the concomitant need for additional breadth of subject coverage. How is it possible for a small faculty to teach so much, at the stringent level of skill working professionals desire? Yet the current accreditation standards do not permit a school to write off some aspects of the information professions in order to concentrate on others. If the Loon had to, she would guess this is the fundamental reason that during the slow and acrimonious L-school/iSchool split, certain iSchools voluntarily ceded accreditation—and she thinks permitting them to do so rather than examining the possibilities in library-school specialization was a significant mistake on CoA’s part. Engineering schools need not teach every last facet of every last form of engineering; the very idea is unimaginable. How is information less complex than engineering?
  • The oddball status of some library schools within their organizations. Library schools are odd ducks within academe. Their research programs straddle the humanities, qualitative and quantitative social sciences, and computer science. This can make tenuring LIS faculty a challenge; imagine sending a computer scientist up for tenure before a committee of (non-digital, let us assume) humanists! At institutions where undergraduate education is the top priority, a master’s-level program may be misunderstood; where the liberal arts are the top priority, a professional program may be sneered at. Make no mistake, surviving in academe under such conditions is a Sisyphean endeavor.
  • The merger movement. The Loon, unlike some, is not particularly opposed to mergers. They do, however, provide cover for the gradual assimilation or not-so-gradual dissolution of struggling small programs.
  • Institutions’ hunt for closeable programs. The Great Recession has forced any number of institutions to look for programs to close. The smaller the program, the more threatened. Small library schools are no exception. If CoA is not careful about how it phrases demands for additional institutional support (as in the Notice CoA sent to Southern Connecticut), CoA may actually accelerate this phenomenon; rather than responding with the needed support, the institution may gladly seize on the excuse to shutter the program.

Should the profession be concerned about the dissolution of small schools? Despite the obvious dog the Loon has in that hunt, working at a small school as she does, the Loon isn’t prepared to say. Perhaps this is the way things should go; if curricular breadth is to be the true measure of library-school viability, then given a dearth of cloneable da Vincis or William Morrises among LIS faculty, large schools are the only efficient way to provide it.

To keep small schools around, however, the Loon can see little option but to have CoA allow specialization, such that small schools need not try to graduate every conceivable variety of information professional. The Loon wouldn’t mind that. She doesn’t think librarianship should mind that, either.

The Loon doubts CoA will go that route, in all honesty. They have been warned away from it by the high dudgeon of librarians who saw iSchools intentionally jettisoning certain librarianish specialties. (That dudgeon, incidentally, is a bad idea for anyone who wishes the survival of small schools, and agrees with the Loon that small schools cannot survive unless permitted to specialize.) She is therefore resigning herself to the notion that her workplace may well not last the length of her working life.

What will come next for her, should that fate come to pass, the Loon is not sure. But she is reasonably confident she will be able to turn her wings to something.

One thought on “The fate of small library schools?

  1. Tracy

    What we just saw happen at San Jose is a drastic split between regular and special sessions. Even though the program is entirely online, regular (California) students are now essentially in a small program with limited elective options (at least until they’re half done with the program and can switch to special session). Although what “policy change” led to this decision has been unclear, it’s obvious that there is some component of the library school not being able to fully support the program on the state-funded side. I wonder what this will mean for accreditation?