Gavia Libraria

Further notes on ALA accreditation

In light of free-floating anxiety the Loon has seen regarding library-school accreditation, as well as significant confusion about what accreditation can and can’t accomplish for librarianship, the Loon will offer a few more observations on accreditation standards and processes. She has given a brief synopsis of the process already.

One vitally important thing to know about accreditation is that each school is evaluated in isolation from other schools. Accreditation is not a Microsoftian “fire the bottom 5%” endeavor; it does not even try to compare, much less rank, schools to begin with, nor is it at all concerned with the absolute number of accredited schools or their graduates. Each school is measured solely on its own adherence to the Standards. If the school clears that hurdle, it is accredited for another seven years, even if it is the worst accredited school in ALA accreditation history, or if it completely falls down on the job in an important area not covered by the Standards.

An obvious corollary is that ALA accreditation as currently practiced is an extremely poor tool for controlling overproduction of new professionals; it can’t even control overproduction of library schools! ALA has no power to shut down a library school in any event; program shutdown is a function of the host colleges and universities, not any professional organization. The philosophy is therefore “accredit all the deserving and let the market sort ’em out,” which is quite likely unfair to applicants, and fundamentally ethically challenging. One could also argue with some justification that the clear-the-hurdle approach does not particularly encourage schools to chase improved quality and innovation, though in fairness to ALA, no accreditation processes the Loon knows of are any different in this respect.

Moreover, schools are judged as a whole, a gestalt. Accreditation therefore has no mechanism to rid schools of underperforming instructors, especially not tenured or indefinitely-appointed instructors. Available curricular interventions are likewise minimal; the curriculum standards are resolutely topic-agnostic (as the Loon suspects they probably should be, to be sure).

It is also important to recognize that while teaching and curriculum quality are elements of the Standards, they are not the only elements, and no part of the Standards weighs more heavily than any other. A putative library school wishing to employ only practitioners as instructional staff (a reform the Loon has occasionally seen professionals suggest) would likely not be accredited, because the Faculty section of the Standards is explicit in several places (e.g. III.5) regarding the necessity for research production. (Yes, some practitioners do research, but the Loon does not think this is what most reformers have in mind when they suggest practitioner instruction.)

The Loon glossed over this in her 2014 predictions post, but it bears repetition and expansion: the ALA’s accreditation standards are under revision, a draft of the new standards is available, and the public comment period for that draft is underway! If you are concerned about the state of library education, now is your chance to drive the standards by which library schools will be evaluated.

Bluntly, some things we (for the Loon’s Boring Alter Ego has every intention of sending in comments) will not be able to change; the profession might well prefer a Microsoftian school culling or a defined list of topic areas, but they’re just not feasible. Adding missing or underspecified elements (the Loon will be looking at language about advising and placement rates, for example) is possible, however, and the Loon encourages reading the draft and commenting upon it in that light.

The Loon would be happy to answer questions to the best of her decidedly limited ability in the comments here, or via Twitter. Neither the Loon nor her Boring Alter Ego, it should be said, has any connection with the ALA Committee on Accreditation aside from the BAE working for an ALA-accredited school, and one or two professional acquaintances among CoA members past and present. Nothing the Loon says about accreditation in any venue should be interpreted as in any way official, or anyone’s sense or responsibility but her own.