Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 21, No. 4 March 2001


Academic Libraries and Regional Accreditation

by Larry Hardesty

According to an old joke, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you," can be the most feared words an American can hear. Many administrators and faculty members harbor similar sentiments towards regional accreditation associations. Emotions range from fear that the accreditation process may lead to sanctions, to irritation that a time-consuming process may not benefit the institution. Such reactions are seldom justified. Few institutions need to fear sanctions, and most institutions would find the process highly beneficial if they used it as it is intended—a planning tool for self-improvement. Instead, many attempt to present themselves in the best light possible to avoid any inconvenience or public embarrassment.

Begun in the 19th century to assure quality in higher education, accreditation has evolved into a distinctive American system. Administered through six regional-based associations,* it is voluntary, non-governmental, nonprofit, and peer reviewed. (An alternative is the government-mandated systems common in other countries.) Accreditation, of course, is neither entirely voluntary nor entirely non-governmental: accreditation means eligibility for federal funds to support teaching, research and student aid. In serving as the gatekeeper for the U.S. Department of Education, each regional accreditation association must abide by certain federally mandated policies and are mindful of the federal government's oversight.

*The six regional accreditation agencies are the: Middle States Commission on Higher Education; North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; New England Association of Schools and Colleges; Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Latitude Allowed with Standards

Nevertheless, regional accreditation associations do have considerable latitude in developing and applying their standards. As a result, the standards an institution must meet and how it is held in compliance to these standards varies widely depending on its location. At one end of the spectrum is the Southern Association's current Criteria for Accreditation containing several hundred "must" statements, and at the other end is the New England Association's Standards for Accreditation which reflect the Yankee tradition of "I'll keep my nose out of your business and you don't bother me."

Some associations, such as the Southern Association, traditionally have focused considerable attention on the libraries and librarians. In addition to its numerous library-related "must" statements, the Southern Association for many years has always had a librarian on its accreditation team. The librarian largely has responsibility for the library. Therefore, he or she may spend most of the accreditation visit interviewing librarians, support staff, students, faculty, and administrators and reviewing documents related to the library.

Others, such as North Central, traditionally have given less attention to the library. The North Central visiting team is relatively small and often does not have a librarian member. Each member of the team may have multiple responsibilities, and, as a result, sometimes the team member assigned to the library may spend little time on the library. Despite the disparate approaches the associations take to their responsibilities, several factors came together recently to impel all the associations to review their standards:

  • dissatisfaction among colleges and universities with the accreditation process,

  • requirements by the federal government of more evidence of student achievement in the accreditation reviews, and

  • pressure on associations to legitimize use of new technologies to support and deliver educational programs.

The advent of technology has thrown the concept of library and the need to have bricks-and-mortar structures housing thousands of hardbound books into a new arena of discussions. For example, North Central has accredited the University of Phoenix, with numerous locations without a physical library, and the Northwest standards, effective September 1, 2001, state, the institution need only demonstrate that "[it] provides library resources. . ."1 The proposed standards of some other associations also leave the door open for accreditation of institutions without physical libraries and perhaps even librarians.

Such recent revisions naturally have provoked considerable concern among academic librarians. For example, the Southern Association's revised standards proposed last fall did not include the words "libraries" or "librarians" and did not appear to require appropriate graduate degrees for librarians. The drafters of this document reduced the approximately 40 library-related "must" statements of the current standards to one "Core Requirement" and three "Comprehensive Requirements" under "Learning Resources" (both under "Section V. Resources" which also included "Financial and Physical Resources"2). Only after intense lobbying by librarians did the Task Force on the Revision Process reinstate the words "libraries" and "librarians" in the document and move the library section to educational programs under the heading "Library and Other Learning Resources." It remains to be seen if these revisions remain in the final version.

Library Needs in a Changing Environment

Such recent actions have undermined librarians' confidence in the associations' continued appreciation for good libraries. Instead, librarians question if the authors of these revisions have either recently ventured into a library or used remotely any of the library's electronic resources.

The authors seem unaware both of the limitations of digital information and of the need for qualified librarians to facilitate the effective use of new information technologies. While the amount of digitized information available has increased enormously in recent years, only a small portion of published information is available in this format, and the publication of information in paper formats remains unabated.

Librarians are re-examining traditional organizational structures and operations. They are developing new structures to respond more effectively to user needs, and they are outsourcing some traditional library operations. This, however, does not mean that all old technologies, structures, and operations are irrelevant and can be summarily discarded. Physical libraries are still needed.

During the past decade, new technologies have placed increased demands on librarians as gate-keepers, filterers, authenticators and customizers of information. Librarians are using sophisticated technology to expand services through information commons in the library and through websites providing gateways to electronic resources for both on-campus and remote user needs. They are designing and implementing innovations such as publicly searchable databases of the scholarly output of individual institutions.

Librarians also are expanding their instructional efforts as knowledge of how to retrieve relevant information from myriad databases and how to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize that information have become critical skills. To accomplish this, librarians are teaming with computer services staff, instructional designers, and classroom faculty to collaborate on course design. They are developing online tutorials and increasingly sophisticated information literacy programs. Some libraries are even offering 24/7 reference services.

"During the past decade, new technologies have placed increased demands on librarians as gatekeepers, filterers, authenticators and customizers of information. Librarians are using sophisticated technology to expand services...They are designing and implementing innovations such as publicly searchable databases...They are developing online tutorials and increasingly sophisticated information literacy programs."

The changing times are demanding new librarian positions, such as web development librarians and copyright and intellectual property librarians, and enhanced skills of librarians with more traditional titles. Recruiting, however, at all levels of the profession has become increasingly challenging, in large part because the private sector also finds desirable those skills and abilities that make for a qualified librarian—and are willing to pay for them! Therefore, libraries and librarians need the continued strong support that many associations have historically provided—instead of the diminished support that some are now proposing.

While the support for qualified staff, adequate buildings, and financial resource that librarians seek from accreditation associations may appear, at first glance, as self-serving, this support is needed to anticipate and respond successfully to a wide variety of library user needs.

What Academic Librarians Want

Academic librarians, as with any group, hold disparate views toward accreditation. Nevertheless, I can share here, with confidence that they are widely held, the salient points made by academic librarians in the dozens of e-mails, faxes, and letters sent to me during the past few months. Librarians want from accreditation standards:

• Standards that state clear and reasonable expectations

In casting a wide net in writing standards applicable to a wide range of institutions, from community colleges, to major research universities, to for-profit transregional institutions, many authors of proposed revisions resorted to liberal use of such words as "adequate," "appropriate," and "sufficient." Such language is vague and ineffective. The ambiguity both gives too much latitude in meeting the standards and implies too little expectation of excellence. Most librarians expressed a desire for clearly stated expectations readily located in a well-defined section of the standards document.

Most of the revised standards place a heavy emphasis on outcomes. Although historically many library benchmarks have dealt with input measures (e.g., size of collection, number of periodical subscriptions, size of staff), most librarians welcomed the increased emphasis on outcome, particularly student learning. Some, however, expressed concerns that the emphasizing of outcomes might result in overlooking the inputs necessary to produce the desired results. Librarians also expressed concern about the lack of widely accepted output benchmarks and about the high subjectivity of many currently used outcome measures, such as student satisfaction surveys. Therefore, they look to the associations not only for the creation of standards but also for more guidance in measuring success in meeting the standards.

• Standards that specifically include the library and librarians

Some accreditation agencies have proposed dropping the words "library" and "librarian" from their standards and replacing them with such words as "learning support services", "learning resources", and "information resources and services." In one region, association representatives told librarians that "library" and "librarian" are old-fashioned and limiting terms. Despite assurances from association officials that such changes should not be read as diminishing the role of the library in the accreditation process, the librarians who communicated with me agreed that it does. Although technology, titles and techniques change with time, "library" and "librarian" are still valid, readily understood, and, thus, preferred terms. They have not become "cyberians" (a short-lived term); they are librarians who now do different things and do them differently.

Librarians are the individuals primarily responsible for acquiring, organizing, administering, and disseminating information resources in any format to meet the specific needs of users at an institution. They are uniquely qualified to administer the complexities of information resources and to provide needed instruction on the effective use of these resources. Librarians not only seek to retain the term "librarian," but they also seek from the associations the validation that libraries should employ librarians who hold graduate degrees in library and information science, particularly the ALA-approved MLS. (Some colleagues agreed that other degrees may be appropriate for certain positions in the library, such as subject bibliographers, archivists, and heads of some specialized libraries.) As one librarian wrote me, "You can be sure that without a standard it will in many cases be less than an MLS, which effectively eliminates a requirement for any library education at all." To support this assertion, several librarians wrote of incidents and resulting debacles when, for example, a vice-president tried to install his golfing buddy as the library director or a dean assigned to the library a faculty member who had been mediocre in the classroom.

Librarians do not find it surprising that some institutions seek accreditation without physical libraries and qualified librarians—both require resources. One librarian in frustration wrote, "Accreditation is given to all of the colleges (competitors) that set up shop in a rented room here in our city and do not offer any library support for their students. Of course they can charge less than we do for tuition." Some institutions may not fully appreciate the risk to themselves when they seek to change the standards. The small and medium-sized public institutions and lesser-endowed private colleges were well-represented in the Southern Associations' revision process this past fall. These, however, are the institutions that might suffer most in direct competition with the transregional virtual institutions as standards are lowered.

• Standards that show an understanding of new technology limitations

While embracing new technologies, many librarians expressed frustration that the revisions favored the "newest game in town"—that is, digital resources over print collections and remote services over face-to-face instruction and service. Libraries are more than computer terminals. Librarians argue that both students and scholars will still need to rely on print, as well as digital, resources for many years. For example, until major problems of electronic archiving are resolved, having temporary access to certain databases will not serve the research library's purpose of collection and preserving comprehensive collections. Librarians asked how can libraries use digital resources to preserve information when vendors and publishers often provide no assurances that they will make the databases and the technology to access them available in the long term. Librarians find it a highly mistaken notion that digital information sources are always free, or sometimes even cheaper than information in traditional formats. Often electronic databases are more expensive than their print counter parts. In particular, librarians from community colleges find the FTE pricing of some databases results in a price prohibitive to their libraries.

• Standards that clearly place the library within the academic programs of the institution

Librarians seek recognition that the library is an inextricable part of the educational program and not just a support service or physical resources. They provide services tailored to support the particular learning, teaching, and research needs of their institution's students and faculty. Clearly there is an increasing need to instruct students on how to use effectively the growing mass of information in its various formats. It is not enough to put databases on a website; librarians are needed to teach students how to use them. They welcome the increased emphasis on measures that heavily weight evidence that students actually learn how to use information resources. Many librarians strongly supported inclusion of information competency/literacy in accreditation standards.

• Standards that require a librarian as a member of the accreditation team

While many associations already have a librarian member of every accreditation team, some do not, and librarians are concerned that in the streamlining of the accreditation process, they will be dropped as team members from those who do. Librarians seek team membership so each team will have an individual who understands how vague terms such as "appropriate," "sufficient," and "adequate" apply to libraries in particular situations. They want peers who are truly knowledgeable about the fields they come to assess.

Accreditation as an Ally

Many librarians wrote of the positive aspects of the current accreditation procedures, particularly of budget and staffing increases as the result of accreditation visits. Perhaps more than any other group on campus, librarians have welcomed the accreditation process and used it as a planning tool to enhance the resources and services offered by the library and to inform faculty members and administrators participating in the process of the importance of the library. Therefore, they do not want the desirable aspects of the process lost as associations try to respond to the increasing complexities of higher education.

Librarians seek in their regional accreditation association an ally in confirming the important role the library plays in the education of students and in affirming that libraries do need qualified staff, adequate buildings, and financial resources. Many expect more from the accreditation associations than just regulations and the meeting of a "floor of expected quality." They want the associations [to provide] "a vision for what a library [should do] for the academic life of the community; a vision for the role the library plays in supporting inquiry among students and faculty; [and] a vision for the instructional role the library plays for students and for the consulting role the library plays for faculty." Many librarians fear, however, that "without the insistence on adequate input standards from accrediting agencies, library budgets will plummet and both current and future generations of students will suffer."

Learning From History

In his 1901 presidential address to the Southern Association, James Powers complained about rampant commercialism of the "diploma mills" that existed only to confer marketplace legitimacy on graduates who sought the economic benefit and social prestige of academic recognition without being willing to pay the price in intellectual labor that legitimate scholarly achievement demanded.3 Technology may have changed considerably in the past century, but human nature has not. Regional accreditation associations exist today for the same reason they came into being: to assure quality—and the resulting public confidence—in higher education. Yet, some now argue that the old rules and regulations originally instituted to prevent the abuses of the old diploma mills no longer apply and now needlessly restrict technologically based distance-education programs.4 If the associations do not labor diligently to maintain the public's trust in higher education, we all may be confronted in our offices someday by an individual proclaiming, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you with your accreditation."

—Larry Hardesty is College Librarian, Austin College, Sherman, TX


1Personal Correspondence from Larry Stevens, Deputy Executive Director, Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Colleges, January 26, 2001.

2Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges, "Principles and Requirements for Accreditation: Proposal," Decatur, Georgia. September 2001

3James D. Miller, A Centennial History of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: 1895-1995 (Decatur, Georgia: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, 1998), 76.

4Dan Carnevale, "Report to Congress Says Financial-Aid Rules are Hurting Distance Programs," The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24, 2001. Accessed January 27, 2001. 

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last modified: Feb 2001

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