Why is accreditation important?

Schools of library and information science, under a variety of labels, have been accredited by the American Library Association (ALA) for many decades. The process of accrediting professional education occurs for other fields as well (law, medicine, and many others) and is a nongovernmental system of evaluation that is voluntary. The ALA maintains a list of accredited master's programs.

Like other accrediting programs, it exists to establish and maintain standards of quality so that graduates from accredited programs will be prepared in a consistent and predictable way as they enter the profession. The ALA is the largest library organization in the world and has members in every kind of information-related institution; however, it is not the only association in the profession and there is some concern that other professional associations, such as the Special Libraries Association, Society of American Archivists, among several others, should have an important role in evaluating educational programs. While this may be an attractive option and has been the object of much debate, this discussion focuses on the accrediting activities of ALA.

There exist two major kinds of accreditation for higher education, one at the institutional level and the other at lower-unit or program levels. Colleges and universities in Mississippi are accredited by regional and national associations, such as the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Programmatic or unit accreditation focuses on discipline-specific education or training and is frequently carried out by specialized associations like the American Bar Association. In our field, the ALA-accredited master's is considered the standard entry-level degree. For school library media specialists, the same degree with a specialty in school library media from an educational unit accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is the appropriate first professional degree.

Accreditation in general, and in the case of our profession, is a condition of a program, but it is also a continuing process of assessing and improving the quality of a profession's educational programs. Until 1992, the standards of compliance in our field had been quantified measurements that were assumed to accurately represent the state of educational quality in library and information science programs. In 1992, the Council of ALA adopted new standards and the newest version was released in 2008 as "Standards for Accreditation of Master's Programs in Library and Information Studies," which place more of an emphasis on qualitative assessment. The process of continuous evaluation ensures that the condition of accreditation remains and provides a credential that signifies that the program fulfills a commitment to educational quality.

Working through the ALA Office of Accreditation, the COA proposes a chair of the External Review Panel based on information about the program provided by the school. The chair of the External Review Panel plans the evaluation, advises regarding the appointment of the panel, and assigns responsibilities to panel members. The chair is also responsible for the production of the External Review Panel Report, and appears at the COA meeting when the accreditation decision is made. A school submits a program presentation several months before a site visit by the panel, after which the panel submits its evaluation to COA, which itself makes the final decision.

The process is an excellent opportunity for the school to look at its program and related programs and for the other constituencies to take note of the school's progress. It is an appropriate time for university administrators, alumni, employers, students, and the profession in general to assess a school and its program. As intense as the process can be, it is widely appreciated for its positive effect on the growth of individual programs and for its effect on standards of quality. 

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