In a conversation today, I was reminded that most librarians do not know what it means for a library program to be accredited by the American Libraries Association (ALA). I must admit that I didn't understand it, until I had to get intimate with the details because of my work. Yes, I went to an ALA accredited program, because I was told that doing so was important. Yes, even when I didn't understand the details of accreditation, I have counseled people to go to a program tjat is accredited. Most libraries seek to hire librarans that have an accredited degree. Without an accredited degree, people often are unable to obtain the jobs that they desire.
What is accreditation? According to ALA: (bolding added)
Accreditation is a voluntary system of evaluation of higher education institutions and programs. It is a collegial process based on self-evaluation and peer-assessment for improvement of academic quality and public accountability. Accreditation assures that higher education institutions and their units, schools, or programs meet appropriate standards of quality and integrity.Notice that accreditation does not mean that every program is alike. Programs, in fact, can be very different in terms of mandatory classes, exit requirements, and more.
Accreditation is both a process and a condition. The process entails the assessment of educational quality and the continued enhancement of educational operations through the development and validation of standards. The condition provides a credential to the public-at-large indicating that an institution and/or its programs have accepted and are fulfilling their commitment to educational quality.
The Office of Accreditation, within ALA, is the group that oversees all accreditation activities. Besides the staff of that office, external review panels (ERP) are involved in reviewing each program. On a specific schedule an ERP is assembled and tasked with reading the self-evaluation documents created by a specific LIS program and then visiting that program in order to gather more information. It is the ERP that recommends to the Office of Accreditation if a program should be re-accredited, or if it should be given a conditional accreditation and asked to address specific concerns.
Yes, a program can be given a conditional accreditation (see glossary) and asked to plan how it will improve. Over the years, many programs have had conditional accreditation, including those that people at the time may have felt were top-notch institutions. Remember that the accreditation review begins with the program assessing itself. If the program isn't living up to what it desires, the conditional accreditation provides a time for the program to step up and get itself back on track.
If you have an ALA accredited library degree (e.g., MLS, MSLIS, MLIS), it means that you received your degree from a library program that has gone through an intensive review and that it meets appropriate standards for quality and integrity. It doesn't mean that you attended the same classes as a person in another program. It doesn't mean that you learned the same things as someone from another program. It does mean that ALA found that you program met its standards.
ALA does not act alone. It is part of an "accrediting community through recognition by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and volunteer service with the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA)," Therefore, some of what it asks of LIS programs are requirements, for example, from CHEA (e.g., the need to make program assessment data public).
Now that I have become better versed in what ALA accreditation means, I wonder why library professionals rely on accreditation, but don't fully understand it. Yes...I'm asking that of my former self and I think the answer is that no one stands up and tells us that it is important to understand. In addition, none of our non-LIS employers or community members ask what it means. (If they asked, would they sit still for a full answer?)
If you are now intrigued, spend some time on the web site for the Office of Accreditation. If you are connected to an LIS program (alumni or current student), be aware of the program's accreditation and be willing to help as it prepares for its next review. I am not sure what help you can provide (or what the program might need), but I'm sure they will be happy to hear that you want to ensure that the program remains accredited.