Fifty years ago, the School of Information Sciences first went through the rigorous process of accrediting its Master of Science in Information Sciences program through the American Library Association—though at the time the degree was known as a Master of Science in Library Science. As society evolved, so have libraries and the field of information sciences. Along with it, the ALA accreditation standards has been continuously reevaluated and updated to reflect advances in the field and values of library professionals and academics. The MSIS program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has kept pace with these advances and changes for five decades and is now celebrating its 50th year of continuous accreditation.
“It’s a very intense process that involves a lot of stakeholders. It’s not just one person, it’s the entirety of the profession and faculty as well,” said SIS Associate Professor Rachel Fleming-May, who also is serving as the self-study coordinator for the upcoming accreditation review in 2023-2024. “The standards set forth by ALA very neatly marry the theory of the field with the practice and make explicit how the theory informs practice and vice-versa, which is the way that it should be in a professional degree program.”
Fleming-May said the accreditation came out of a need for consistency in the profession of librarianship. Prior to the creation of the ALA accreditation, there was a lack of standards that libraries, librarians, and library schools could look toward as a guide. Now, ALA accreditation has become the gold standard for those entering library and information sciences professions.
“It saves the employer’s time. If they can’t see the program is accredited, how can they figure out the assurance of quality? It’s very normal for professions to go for this external quality oversight where you can come in and help a program improve. It also gives visibility to the program,” said Karen O’Brien, who is director of ALA’s Office for Accreditation, the liaison office to the board that appoints the ALA Committee on Accreditation.
O’Brien has been in that office since 2000 and in that process became acquainted with and befriended the late Ed Cortez, past SIS director. She was particularly impressed with Cortez’s knowledge of the field and understanding of accreditation, as he served several years on the ALA’s Committee on Accreditation, including as chair. As she came into her new position, he provided her with context and history around issues and standards that had changed over the years.
“He did so much work and he was so interested in accreditation being as useful as it could be, and as chair he was able to effect change in a more overall way for all of the programs,” O’Brien said.
She said the standards for accreditation change about every eight years, and those changes are based on feedback from program heads and practitioners. Changes in the standards don’t center solely on librarianship theory or practice, but also consider broader ramifications to the profession. For example, this latest revision notably includes a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in every single standard.
The Accreditation Process
Many SIS faculty and staff are already deep in the business of building the self-study report that is just one half of the accreditation process, and at the helm of it all is SIS Professor and Director Abebe Rorissa. The self-study report encompasses five broad aspects of the program, which include: the systematic planning the school does around the curriculum and courses it offers to ensure excellent student learning outcomes; the curriculum itself and whether it meets the students’ needs as well as workforce demand; the school’s faculty and whether their research and teaching experience makes the program strong and successful; recruitment of students and ensuring they have a quality learning experience; and an administrative component that reviews the facilities, administration, and finances that support the school.
For Rorissa, who joined SIS as director in summer 2021, overseeing the accreditation is allowing him to see how far the school has come and also to envision how far it can go.
“We are not only celebrating the 50th anniversary of accreditation but also that, in the last four years, enrollment has been growing. We may likely have record enrollment this year in the program. I think that is a big deal, especially for accreditation, to show that we have been growing as a program. That is always positive,” he said. “We are also adding more faculty to support our students; we’ve added two faculty this year and are adding two more next year.”
Rorissa said any student who graduates from the MSIS program can be assured that prospective employers will automatically understand that the ALA accreditation of their master’s program puts them ahead of those without a degree from an accredited program.
“Any employer will know that you met all the requirements and the program you got your degree from meets the highest standard in terms of quality. It’s about quality education. You have a competitive edge over programs that are not accredited, and that’s an added value to your degree,” he said.
Once the self-study report is submitted and reviewed, a site visit will be scheduled in February of 2024. If all goes well with the site visit, the MSIS program’s ALA accreditation will be continued in June 2024.
The Value of Accreditation
It was the late 90s when Elizabeth Aversa stepped into the role of director at SIS, and while she was only in the role for five years, it was a formative time for the school. During her tenure, SIS underwent an accreditation cycle, moved from (the now demolished) Temple Court into the Communications Building, joined the College of Communication to form the College of Communication and Information, and started its online distance education program.
Aversa, who went on to become a professor at the University of Alabama, also served as chair of the ALA Committee on Accreditation for several years. So she has been on both sides of accreditation, and even in her retirement she still touts its benefits.
“There was always controversy about accreditation. There are detractors who believe that it doesn’t make any difference, but since I was chair of that accreditation committee for several years, I’m a little bit biased. I still believe that people who seek that master’s degree ought to be looking at places that are accredited,” she said. “If you want to be in a library, the ALA accreditation still matters, even in 2022. You have the seal of approval from a professional body.”
Aversa pointed out that people with degrees from ALA-accredited programs have an easier time moving around the country for jobs, including those who want to be certified for school library media. She said gaining certification in a new state is expedited for graduates from ALA-accredited programs.
“When you go out in the world, many libraries still want to make sure that the people they hire were educated at an institution where they really had a rigorous program of professional preparation for those jobs,” she said. “If you have a degree from an ALA-accredited program, you can take that anywhere.”