Guest Blogger Beth Evans is an Associate Professor of Library Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
Whether you believe that a library on your campus supports learning and research through print and electronic collections, or that the information literacy skills learned through research are integral to a college education, your thinking is in line with that of many educators, but may not be heading in the same direction as that of the policy makers at one of the major accrediting organizations.
Academic librarians became alarmed earlier this year when they learned of the proposed revisions to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) “Characteristics of Excellence,” the standards document that is used to evaluate the worthiness of a college or university. The new guidelines reduce a 75 page document down to a scant 20 pages and reduce the number of standards by half, from 14 to seven.
What has disappeared, among other things, in the trimming down of an admittedly lengthy accrediting document, is any mention of the word library and of the requirement for information literacy as one of the general education competencies that an institution is expected to instill. This revised document, a document that acknowledges “athletic[s], student life, and other extracurricular activities” as likely parts of a college student’s experience, cannot imagine these same young people hunkered down in a library carrel studying for a final, scanning the shelves of a special collections archives for an historic volume, gazing intently at a computer screen in search of an electronic journal article, or hauling off a load of circulating books to the check-out desk in preparation for writing a final paper. Nor is this a document that recognizes the countless hours librarians spend carefully selecting appropriate books for the library collection, instructing students in understanding the value of peer-review, and steering learners towards authoritative reference sources as alternatives to Wikipedia.
Libraries serve a physical function on a college campus as much as librarians play a role in the educational process. While librarians debate among themselves how to maintain the balance between their educational purpose and their brick and mortar presence, accrediting bodies are divided in how emphatically they insist on the presence of a library on the campuses where they visit. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) devotes one of its eleven “Standards for Acceditation” to “Library and Other Information Resources,” as well as includes information literacy, or the ability to recognize the need for information and select and use information appropriately in its Standard Four, “The Academic Program.”
Whereas the eleven individual points of the NEASC Standard Seven articulate the need for providing information and technology resources “appropriate to the institution’s mission and academic program,” the understanding that guidance in use of these resources is a graduated process, inextricable from all the learning that happens over the course of a college career is spelled out in Standard 4.7: The institution ensures that students use information resources and information technology as an integral part of their education. The institution provides appropriate orientation and training for use of these resources, as well as instruction and support in information literacy and information technology appropriate to the degree level and field of study.
The NEASC Standard 4.19, also part of “The Academic Program,” denotes a number of competencies expected of graduates who have passed through an accredited institution. “Graduates successfully completing an undergraduate program demonstrate competence in written and oral communication in English; the ability for scientific and quantitative reasoning, for critical analysis and logical thinking; and the capability for continuing learning, including the skills of information literacy. They also demonstrate knowledge and understanding of scientific, historical, and social phenomena, and a knowledge and appreciation of the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of humankind” (from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/26/oxford-debates-role-its-librarians-and-libraries).
Some accrediting bodies, similarly to the NEASC, devote a good deal of text to describing the function of the library on campus. The Western Association of School and Colleges (WASC) Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges gives prominence to libraries in the second of its five published standards, “Student Learning Programs and Services — Library and Learning Support Services” (II.C). Other accrediting body standards, less focused on the physical requirements of a library, instead offer as the NEASC does an outline of the expected competencies of graduates and include information literacy, a skill fostered by the presence of a library. The WASC, “Accreditation Reference Handbook” provides one such example (Standard 2.2a, “Achieving Educational Objectives Through Core Functions, Teaching and Learning”) as does the current Middle States “Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education” (as last revised in 2011). A paragraph from the MSCHE Standard 12, “General Education,” is striking in its similarity to the NEASC Standard above. Middle States evaluators expect to see: “evidence of articulated expectations of student learning outcomes for written communication, speech communication, quantitative reasoning, scientific reasoning, information literacy, technological competence, and critical analysis and reasoning for all undergraduate degree students.”
So what does MSCHE have in mind with its omitting libraries and information literacy entirely from its proposed new standards? Has this well-respected accrediting body fallen in step with the many who offhandedly will proclaim that any information anyone wants can be found for free and on the internet? Brian T. Sullivan, in a 2011 commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education fast-forwards four decades to 2050, a time during which he suggests we might write an autopsy report for the academic library. Sullivan imagines a world populated with students wealthy enough to subsidize their own electronic resources subscriptions and fortunate enough to have available remarkably intuitive search engines to help them do their research.
Whether it be to end the collective buying power of the institution we all know and call a library, or to cast aside the highly-trained individuals we call librarians who are equipped to guide us through the ever-expanding choices of information resources, the academy would not be acting wisely to shut the doors on its libraries. Nor is Middle States, or any accrediting body that works in higher education, wise to eliminate libraries and librarians from its expectations of what it should find in a college or university designed to educate the next generation of working and thriving adults. The MSCHE invites comments to the proposed revisions of their standards and has two town hall meetings scheduled within the next week. Speak out for keeping libraries and the teaching of information literacy in the accrediting process and, more importantly, for keeping the library in its vital role on your campus.