Category Archives: Academia

Librarians Meet the Commissioners, Live: The Middle State Accreditation Standards Revisions Redux

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

If the recent town hall meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) in Albany, New York had been a boxing match, you might have easily concluded that the librarians won in a forceful effort to help shape the revision of the accreditation standards document. One third of all those who stood up to speak spoke in defense of the work librarians do on college campuses across the region.  Furthermore, not all of those who spoke were librarians.  Librarians had allies among the classroom faculty present.  One history professor closed out the comment period with an impassioned call for all to recognize the seductions of the latest trends as not having the tested value of some of what has been with us for centuries.  In particular, he referenced libraries.

The overwhelming response of librarians to the call for action in the ACRLog post of January 27, 2014 and other forums had a resounding effect.

While some may feel librarians and library concerns dominated the open discussion at the MSCHE meeting – one speaker from the audience, not a librarian, elicited a laugh from all when she introduced herself and made a particular point of saying that she was not a librarian – in an odd sort of way, it might be argued that libraries lost some ground in this critical round with the Middle State Commissions.  Yes, there was a victory, and a strong victory it was.  The chair of the steering committee, in a conversation before the proceedings, in introductory comments to the assembled audience, and throughout the open comments period, apologized for the omission of the words “information literacy” from what will become the new Characteristics of Excellence.  It was a mistake, he said.  An embarrassment.  We were wrong and we are going to correct it.

The Middle States Commission, the same accrediting body that Steven J. Bell had called “a good friend to academic librarians…an early adopter of specific language in its standards addressing information literacy as a desired learning outcome,” had made a boo-boo and was more than ready to make it better.

Information literacy was in.  But libraries were out.  So were laboratories, art studios, physical education facilities, and any other tangible objects, for this is a standards document focused on the student learning experience and not on the counting of things. Never mind that certain things, ranging from large, physical facilities and infrastructure (including infrastructure that allows for learning in a non-physical or virtual setting) to the smaller tools of education from brushes to beakers to books, play an indispensable role in the educational process.  As the president of the Commission warned those present, any attempts to be specific and proscriptive in the new document would endanger the future viability of the accreditation process.  Counting library books, in particular, was noted as an out-dated methodology, something to be steered clear of in a modern evaluation of a college.  A number of other vitals have dropped from consideration. Faculty is a word less used in the current proposed standards. Faculty used to be covered as a standard of its own.  According to the Commission, some of their members do not employ faculty.  So faculty are not required to make a college and neither are libraries.

Most librarians would agree with the Commission that counting books is not a fair way to measure the adequacy of a college.  Librarians are the first to acknowledge that we own less and less of what we consider to be our collections and lease more and more. Our big e-book packages see titles come and go, often with the result that we will give up on cataloging whatever books are in an electronic package to save ourselves the effort later of removing titles from the OPAC. Counting these books as a way to define our libraries would be like counting each raindrop as it falls, and then disappears on a lake, or worse, down a drain.

Indeed, the visible physicality of the academic library has been on the decline since the end of the card catalog, through the advent of CD-ROMs, to standardized access to databases through the internet. Nonetheless, Jason Kramer, the Executive Director of the New York State Higher Education Initiative, a library lobbying and advocacy group, made a forecast at the MSCHE town hall meeting this past April first.  If the physical functions of what libraries do—the thoughtful selecting and the collective acquiring of and providing access to resources on the behalf of many—is not taken into equal account with the established and now well-accepted role of librarians as key in the educational path towards information literacy, legislators will see this as an opportunity to deny funding for library resources.  It will be April Fool’s Day for many days going forward and it will be libraries who are the ones who will have been duped. In other words, if higher education standards documents make no mention of the need for a college or a university to acquire valuable, and sometimes costly, information resources as one way in which they are defined as an institution of higher learning, then those elected officials who see that tax dollars make their way back into the economy will pass over libraries as fully-prepared to do their job with little more than access to Google.

Perhaps the match between the librarians and Middle States Commissioners in Albany was not a win for either side but rather ended in a tie.  The Commission accepted that it must add information literacy back into the document; librarians are ready to make the case for expanding their role to include other things library.  According to the New York rules of boxing—and this has been a face-off in the New York State capital, an official will often decide on a winner when there is a tie based on which contender appears to be in “better physical condition.” Librarians will do well for the future of education and all learning if we begin to step forward and acknowledge once again the very real physicality of the profession we serve.  Libraries are very much about concrete, tangible goods, services and spaces without which, the incorporeal, but totally laudable goal of assisting learners on their path towards information literacy could not be achieved.

The Sweetest Fruits are Further Up

Part of my experience as a first year academic librarian has also been my experience as a new tenure track faculty member. As a part of this tenure process for library faculty, I must go through an annual reappointment review. The review includes my direct supervisor, as well as a committee of tenured library faculty. This committee provides feedback and input in preparation for “going up” for tenure and promotion – which will happen in about four and a half years for me.

To this end, over the past week, I’ve been compiling my checklist for annual review. In thinking about what I’ve done in the half a year that is under review and submitting my 33 (!) page checklist (that includes publications and appendices), I started thinking about what made me feel good about turning in my first checklist.

Really, it’s simple – don’t go for the low-hanging fruit. I know I talked about this some in the first post I wrote here at the ACRLog, but it struck me again. Pleasure and pride in your work come not from doing “just enough” but from exceeding the expectations set for you as a first year academic librarian. A work-life balance is important to maintain (see my last post) but when you are at work, it’s important to take pride in the quality of that work.

I’ll freely admit that the first year in any new job – especially one with comparatively different duties than one’s previous jobs – is difficult. But it’s important to learn the expectations for you that will be reviewed by not only your supervisor, but also informally or formally by your peers and colleagues in the library. Talk to people, get a clear understanding of these expectations, and then exceed them.

For me, this meant passing up a few opportunities to serve and being perhaps a bit selective in what I chose to do to perform service for the profession. Right after I started in this position, there were several local and regional service opportunities I passed up, knowing that the expectation was for local, regional, or statewide service. That waiting and knowledge of expectations paid dividends when I applied for, and was accepted to, an international group working on revising the ISBN.

I’ll close with a piece of advice one of my friends gave me several years ago: that you begin in the manner you intend to continue in. The statement is perhaps a bit convoluted in syntax, but to me it is a reminder to the bar of expectations is set by your actions early, so it’s important to set a good standard early to both set professional perceptions of yourself in the workplace, as well as compelling you to do the best work you can.

PS – In honor of “library shelfie” day yesterday, here is a photo of technical services where I work shortly after our building opened in 1968:

Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page,
Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page,

Accreditation Standards & Libraries: A Dangerous Ride Down a Devolving Course

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE, or, Middle States) is looking for feedback on the proposed revisions to the Characteristics of Excellence, the MSCHE accreditation standards. If you work in a college or university in an area that comes under Middle States jurisdiction, have or know of a child who attends one of the affected schools, or care about the future of higher education, add your comments to an online survey by January 31 or take the opportunity to attend a town hall meeting scheduled at one of several locations in the region throughout the spring of 2014, and be sure your voice is heard.

The Middle States standards set the bar for the accreditation of colleges in five states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If adopted, the new standards will shape what higher education looks like in four of the eight Ivy League universities, the top two largest U.S. colleges as measured by enrollment, nine Historically Black Colleges, and the first college in the United States dedicated to the education of the deaf, among so many others. The number of students who will be affected is extraordinarily large and diverse. In contrast, the number of standards by which Middle States will measure a school is dramatically shrinking to half the number established the last time the standards underwent a comprehensive review.

According to the MSCHE, “[i]n response to extensive feedback from member institutions and experienced peer evaluators, the Steering Committee attempted to streamline the standards, eliminate redundancies, and focus on clarity and brevity.” What Middle States has done in the process of streamling their standards is to eliminate any mention of libraries from the new plan and entirely eliminate a carefully crafted integration of the teaching work librarians do from the “Educational Offerings” of a college or university (current Standard 11), the “General Education” goals of in institution (current Standard 12) and any “Related Educational Activities” a school was designed to offer (current Standard 13).

The long journey academic librarians have taken to reshape instruction in research to reflect the goals of information literacy, and further, to bring academic institutions on board so that they might understand the broadened role libraries have to play in higher education has been purpose-driven, far-reaching and effective. According to the American Library Association (ALA), when it last looked, each one of the six accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation includes “language in their Standards that stress the importance of teaching [information literacy skills] abilities in colleges and universities.”

Unfortunately, since ALA did its review of the most widely accepted accreditation standards in 2011, some things have changed. What Middle States is moving towards in its proposed new and briefer guidelines, may be, in fact, part of an unwelcome trend in a backward direction.  The most recent Western Association of Schools and Colleges Handbook of Accreditation, published in 2013, leaves information literacy out of Standard 2, “Achieving Educational Objectives Through Core Functions” and only implies the existence of a library in Standard 3, “Developing and Applying Resources and Organizational Structures to Ensure Sustainability.”

As higher education in the United States moves into a period of a fuller integration of pedagogy with technology, a time where researchers struggle to find their way through the onslaught of an information overload (be it a uniquely modern problem or not), and every college administrator from the president on down is quick to remind faculty of the increasing calls for accountability, will libraries continue to be counted?  Libraries and the work librarians do must remain central in every institution of higher education.  Let your voice for libraries be heard.  Respond to the MSCHE survey today.

First Year Wrap

So on July 23rd, the 2012-13 first year academic experience bloggers got this from blogging dynamo Maura Smale, “If you’d like to write a summing up post sometime this summer, that would be great –” . This was good news; I did want to summarize my experiences for new librarians before the school year. I had the mental outline of a post and then came my first retention narrative (warning, sound).  I thought at that point it would be easy to do what I had been doing the first year – knock out a blog post over a few slow info shifts. How very much things have changed.

Last year set the stage for a much, much busier second year. My outreach efforts generated many, many more instruction sessions. – all of which had to be prepared from scratch. My service duties had also ballooned – I’m now on two university committees, and have completed two faculty searches. Finally, I’m gearing up to turn my research into research products. In other words what I thought was a deep end introduction to my job turned out to be relatively easy in retrospect.

Failing in the “Summer” part of the request, and having rewritten this a couple times, my take home from the first year is that my liaison work gave my subject departments the confidence to gift me with a success problem. I didn’t expect the workload of this semester, but I had some wise advice about setting boundaries and sticking to them early that has made this year manageable. I told people early I couldn’t do document delivery, much to the lament of six departments worth of graduate students. But if I scanned articles regularly, I wouldn’t have time to plan a gallery opening or perhaps hatch an open access initiative – activities which should benefit Akron more in the long run.

So meet everyone, make connections, and be persistent. Not everyone appreciates my “just barge in on them” method of liaison librarianship but most do and it is effective, especially for the lab sciences where you should have no expectation of ever seeing a faculty member in the library. If my first year on the tenure track is at all typical your work week and your home life will become increasingly blurred… he typed during his holiday vacation.

Library Research and the IRB: Is It Generalizable?

By Nicole Pagowsky and Maura Smale

There are generally two types of research that take place in the LIS field, one is more rare and is capital-R-Research, typically evidence or theory-based and generalizable; the other, more prevalent, is lowercase-r-research, typically anecdotal, immediate, and written in the style of “how we did it good.” The latter has historically been a defining quality of LIS research and receives much criticism, but as librarianship is a professional field, both theory and practice require documentation. Gorman (2004) notes how value and need have contributed to a mismatch in what is published, “[leading to] a gap in the library journal literature between arid and inaccessible reports of pure research and naive ‘how we did it good’ reports.” There are implications for these concerns both within and outside of the field: first, those within the field place less value on LIS research and might have lower confidence and higher anxiety when it comes to publishing, and second, those outside the field might take LIS research and librarians less seriously when we work to attain greater equality with faculty on campus. Understanding these implications and how human subjects research and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) fit into social sciences research can help frame our own perceptions of what we do in LIS research.

What is the IRB? The IRB regulations developed in the wake of the revelation of Nazi experimentation on humans during WWII, as well as the U.S. government’s infamous Tuskegee study in which black men with syphilis were allowed to go untreated so that researchers could examine the progression of the disease. All U.S. academic and research institutions that receive federal funding for research must convene an IRB to review and monitor research on human subjects and ensure that it remains ethical with no undue risk to participants. There are three levels of IRB approval — exempt, expedited, and full; a project is assigned its level of review based on the amount of risk to the subject and the types of data collected (informational, biological, etc.) (Smale 2010). For example, a project involving the need to draw blood from participants who are under 18 would probably be assigned a full review, while one featuring an anonymous online survey asking adults about their preferences for mobile communications devices would likely be exempt. It’s worth noting that many of the guidelines for IRB review are more relevant to biomedical and behavioral science research than humanities and social science research (for more discussion of these issues, see George Mason University History professor Zachary Schrag’s fascinating Institutional Review Blog).

Practically speaking, what is the process of going through IRB approval like for LIS researchers? We’ve both been through the process — here’s what we’ve learned.

Maura’s Experience

I’ve gone through IRB approval for three projects during my time as a library faculty member at New York City College of Technology (at City University of New York). My first experience was the most complex of the three, when my research partner and I sought IRB approval for a multiyear study of the scholarly habits of undergraduates. Our project involved interviews with students and faculty at six CUNY campuses about how students do their academic work, all of which were recorded and transcribed. We also asked students to photograph and draw objects, locations, and processes related to their academic work. While we did collect personal information from our participants, we’re committed to keeping our participants anonymous, and the risk involved for participants in our study was deemed low. Our research was classified by the IRB as expedited, which requires an application for continuing review each year that we were actively collecting data. Once we finished with interviews and moved to analysis (and writing) only, we were able secure an exempt approval, which lasts for three years before it must be renewed.

The other two projects I’ve sought IRB approval for — one a solo project and one with a colleague — were both survey-based. One involved a web-based survey of members of a university committee my colleague and I co-chaired, and the other a paper survey of students in several English classes in which I’d used a game for library instruction. Participation in the surveys was voluntary and respondents were anonymous. Both surveys were classified exempt by the IRB — the information we collected in both cases were participants’ opinions, and little risk was found in each study.

Comparing my experiences with IRB approval to those I’ve heard about at other colleges and universities, my impression is that my university’s approach to the IRB requirement is fairly strict. It seems that any study or project that is undertaken with the intent to publish is considered capital-R-research, and that the process of publishing the work confers on it the status of generalizable knowledge. Last year a few colleagues and I met with the Chair of the college’s IRB committee to seek clarification, and we learned that interviews and surveys of library patrons solely for the purpose of program improvement does not require IRB approval, as it’s not considered to be generalizable knowledge. However, the IRB committee frowns on requests for retroactive IRB approval, which could put us in a bind if we ever decide that results of a program improvement initiative might be worth publishing.

Nicole’s Experience

At the University of Arizona (UA), I am in the process of researching the impact of digital badges on student motivation for learning information literacy skills in a one-credit course offered by the library. I detailed the most recent meeting with our representative from IRB on my blog, where after officially filing for IRB approval and having much back-and-forth over a few months, it was clarified that we in fact did not exactly need IRB approval in the first place. As mentioned above, each institution’s IRB policies and procedures are different. According to the acting director of the UA’s IRB office, our university is on the more progressive end of interpreting research and its federal definition. Previous directors were more in line with the rest of the country in being very strict, where if a researcher was just talking with a student, IRB approval should be obtained. Because their office is constantly inundated with research studies, a majority of which would be considered exempt or even little-r research, it is a misuse of their time to oversee studies where there is essentially no risk. A new trend is burgeoning to develop a board comprised of representatives from different departments to oversee their own exempt studies; when the acting director met with library faculty recently, she suggested we nominate two librarians to serve on this board so that we would have jurisdiction over our own exempt research to benefit all parties.

Initially, because the research study I am engaging in would be examining student success in the course through grades and assessments, as well as students’ own evaluation of their motivation and achievement, we had understood that to be able to publish these findings, we would be required to obtain IRB approval since we are working with human subjects. Our IRB application was approved and we were ranked as exempt. This means our study is so low-risk that we require very little oversight. All we would need to do is follow guidelines for students to opt-in to our study (not opt-out), obtain consent for looking at FERPA-related and personally identifiable information, and update the Board if we modify any research instruments (surveys, assessments, communications to students about the study). We found out, however, that we actually did not even need to apply for IRB in the first place because we are not necessarily setting out to produce generalizable knowledge. This is where “research” and “Research” come into play. We are in fact doing “research” where we are studying our own program (our class) for program evaluation. Because we are not saying that our findings apply to all information literacy courses across the country, for example, we are not producing generalizable “Research.” As our rep clarified, this does not imply that our research is not real, it just means that according to the federal definition (which oversees all Institutional Review Boards), we are not within their jurisdiction. Another way to look at this is to consider if the research is replicable; because our study is specific to the UA and this specific course, if another librarian at another university attempted to replicate the study, it’s not guaranteed that results will be the same.

With our revised status we can go more in depth in our study and do better research. What does “better” mean though? In this sense, it could be contending with fewer restrictions in looking for trends. If we are doing program evaluation in our own class, we don’t need to anonymize data, request opt-ins, or submit revised research instruments for approval before proceeding because the intent of the research is to improve/evaluate the course (which in turn improves the institution). Essentially, according to our rep, we can really do whatever we want however we want so long as it’s ethical. Although we would not be implying our research is generalizable, readers of our potentially published research would still be able to consider how this information might apply to them. The research might have implications for others’ work, but because it is so specific, it doesn’t provide replicable data that cuts across the board.

LIS Research: Revisiting Our Role

As both of our experiences suggest, the IRB requirement for human subjects research can be far from straightforward. Before the review process has even begun, most institutions require researchers to complete a training course that can take as long as 10 hours. Add in the complexity of the IRB application, and the length of time that approval can take (especially when revisions are needed), and many librarians may hesitate to engage in research involving human subjects because they are reluctant to go through the IRB process. Likewise, librarians might be overzealous in applying for IRB when it is not even needed. With the perceived lower respect that comes in publishing program evaluation or research skewed toward anecdotal evidence, LIS researchers might attempt big-R Research when it does not fit with the actual data they are assessing.

What implications can this have for librarians, particularly on the tenure track? The expectation in LIS is to move away from little-r research and be on the same level as other faculty on campus engaging in big-R Research, but this might not be possible. If other IRB offices follow the trend of the more-progressive UA, many more departments (not just the library) may not need IRB oversight, or will be overseeing themselves on a campus-based board reviewing exempt studies. As the acting IRB director at the UA pointed out to library faculty, publication should not be the criterion for assuming generalizability and attempting IRB approval, but rather intent: what are you trying to learn or prove? If it’s to compare/contrast your program with others, suggest improvements across the board, or make broad statements, then yes, your study would be generalizable, replicable, and is considered human subjects research. If, on the other hand, you are improving your own library services or evaluating a library-based credit course, these results are local to your institution and will vary if replicated. Just because one does not need IRB approval for a study does not mean it is any less important, it simply does not fall under the federal definition of research. Evidence-based research should be the goal rather than only striving for research generalizable to all, and anecdotal research has its place in exploring new ideas and experimental processes. Perhaps instead of focusing on anxiety over how our research is classified, we need to re-evaluate our understanding of IRB and our profession’s self-confidence overall in our role as researchers.

Tl;dr — The Pros and Cons of IRB for Library Research

Pros: allows researchers to make generalizable statements about their findings; bases are covered if moving from program evaluation to generalizable research at a later stage; seems to be more prestige in engaging in big-R research; journals might have a greater desire for big-R research and could pressure researchers for generalizable findings

Cons: limits researchers’ abilities to drill down in data without written consent from all subjects involved (can be difficult with an opt-in procedure in a class); can be extremely time-intensive to complete training and paperwork required to obtain approval; required to regularly update IRB with any modifications to research design or measurement instruments

What Do You Think?


Gorman, M. (2004). Special feature: Whither library education? New Library World, 105(9), 376-380.

Smale, M. A. (2010). Demystifying the IRB: Human subjects research in academic libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(3), 309-321.

Other Resources / Further Reading

Examples of activities that may or may not be human research (University of Texas at Austin)
Lib(rary) Performance blog
Working successfully with your institutional review board, by Robert V. Labaree

Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona, and Tweets @pumpedlibrarian.