Volume 29, Number 3, Fall 2007


Mississippi Public Library System Accreditation Program: A Journey

Sharman Bridges Smith, Executive Director, Mississippi Library Commission

In a 1963 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Peace is a journey of a thousand miles and it must be taken one step at a time.”

Paraphrasing this statement, public library accreditation in Mississippi was a long journey taken one step (and misstep) at a time. The journey began in 1988 and continues today:

1988

Passage of the Mississippi Statewide Library Development System Act.
Landmark legislation revises laws governing public libraries; requires Mississippi Library Commission to develop “a system of public service incentives within a public library accreditation program” and mandates state aid “shall be used only to support library services in accredited public library systems . . . .” (Mississippi Code 1972 Annotated, §39-3-355 and §39-3-357).
Agency adopts seven minimum standards for distribution of state aid until work of Accreditation Committee can be completed.

1990

Appointment of committee, by Library Commission, to develop accreditation program including service measures. After months of exploration, drafts, and deliberation, Committee reports no consensus and disbands.

1992

Appointment of second committee of public library directors and trustees to develop program. Committee recommends using the minimum standards already in place as program and suggests minimum hours for public libraries. Committee dissolves.

2002

Agency includes development of public library standards program in strategic plan.

2004

Legislative watchdog agency issues limited review citing Library Commission for not implementing Accreditation Program.

2006

(January) Board approves timeline for development/implementation of program.
(February) Agency contracts with Sara Laughlin & Associates to facilitate meetings and development process.
(March) Board appoints twenty member committee of public library directors and trustees (balanced by geography, gender, and library size).
(May) Three-day retreat (all public library system directors and committee members) to review and provide input on agency-developed program draft.
(May/June) Committee meets several times to continue development of program.
(July) Town meetings across state to discuss Committee draft and to record recommended suggestions for Committee.
(August) Committee meets to consider town meeting comments and recommendations.
Board reviews Committee draft and makes recommendations.
Committee meets to consider Board comments and recommendations, finalizes and forwards recommended services measures to Board.
Committee document reviewed with public library directors.
(September) Board approves recommendation of Committee.

2007

(May) Agency issues program manual.
(July) Implementation of Mississippi Public Library System Accreditation Program.

Process

Personalities and politics along with other issues compromised the attempts of the first two committees to develop a public library system accreditation program. The success of the third committee is attributable to the political environment and the process strategies used:

  1. Use of an outside facilitator.
  2. Continual involvement of and communication with public library directors.
  3. Pre-established guiding principles which alleviated many fears:
    • Accreditation of public library systems, not individual public libraries.
    • Two-year window to achieve Level A measures before affecting state aid of library system.
    • Implementation July 1, 2007.
    • Tiered service measures with Level A least difficult to achieve and Level AAA most difficult.
    • Base-level funding [Level A] not eroded in order to implement Levels AA and AAA.
    • Agency commitment to seek increased funding for Level A to ensure continuity and incentive funding for Levels AA and AAA.
    • Self-reporting by library systems each year.
    • Revision of service measures every three years.
  4. Draft document provided to group as starting point (did not start with blank paper).
  5. Involvement of each committee member in small group discussions of every measure in every category (governance, administration, and funding; staffing; collections; services; patrons and community; and access).
  6. Constant communication, including meetings across the state, with public library community throughout process.
  7. Agency involved as participant, not driver.

Program Description

There are eighty-five service measures in the eight program categories. Achievement is cumulative. Level A accreditation requires all measures in Level A be accomplished. Accreditation at Level AA requires all measures of Level A and Level AA are met. Level AAA accreditation requires all measures in Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA be achieved.

Where appropriate, measures are progressive from Level A to Level AA to Level AAA. An example from the Access category:

(Level A) Service hours of each library location are fixed, posted, and based on patron needs.
(Level AA) One or more library locations in each county within the library system is open until at least 5:30 P.M. or later at least one day a week or offers weekend hours.
(Level AAA) In each county, the library system provides a minimum of forty unduplicated hours of public service per week, including morning, afternoon, evening, and weekend hours to meet community preferences.

To be accredited and remain eligible for state aid, a public library system must submit a report with supporting documentation by May 31 of each year.

Results

More equitable access to quality library services for all Mississippians is the ultimate goal of the public library system accreditation program. As benchmarks, the service measures are designed to promote local planning for service delivery. Public library systems are undertaking strategic planning, staff training plans, board education, and other initiatives in order to meet the requirements of the accreditation program. The program is also providing direction for the agency on the types of continuing education offerings needed by public libraries.

While the full impact of the program is yet to be determined, the discussion and process of creating the program has already yielded positive results.

The Future

Accreditation is an ongoing process. Program measures must constantly be reviewed and updated to ensure continued relevance. Public libraries must continue to be challenged to ensure that all Mississippians have access to the best possible library services. And the journey continues. . . .

For more information, e-mail Sharman Smith or contact her at 601-432-4039.