The Future of Certification through ALA-APA

ALA members owe a debt of gratitude to PLA, ASCLA, and LAMA who saw a problem, developed a solution, and provoked a major change in ALA structure to implement their solution. These three divisions recognized that specialized knowledge and skills beyond the Master’s degree were required for senior level public library management positions. They proposed a certification program for public library administrators (CPLA) to create a pathway for early career librarians to prepare themselves for library management. Unfortunately, their proposal hit a wall when they brought it forward, because ALA, with its 501(c)3 tax status, could not function as a professional association and certify individuals.

But the CPLA proponents were dogged. Finally, in January 2002, in response to the recognized value of certification programs and the critical need for a coordinated effort to advocate for the salaries and status of all library workers, ALA approved By Laws and established an allied professional association, ALA-APA. I chaired the Certification Task Force that established the initial mission, structure, and guidelines for the certification arm of ALA-APA.1

Certification in this context is different from accreditation and licensure. Certification means that an organization attests that an individual has voluntarily reached an advanced level of competency in an area of specialization. Accreditation is the validation that an educational program has met a specified set of standards. Licensure is the mandatory permission granted to an individual by a governmental entity to enter practice in a field because the individual has met specified minimum requirements (e.g., state licensure requirements for school library media specialists and some public library positions).

The Certification Task Force wrestled with a number of issues in setting up the guidelines, some of which must still be resolved as we continue to develop certification programs.

Issue: Who can propose a certification program? Who decides the competencies required for certification?

Certification programs can be proposed by any ALA division. Other units of the association can work through an appropriate division to propose and develop a program. The competencies are delineated by the division(s) in their proposals. The CPLA program, which is still being finalized, has provided an interesting model for developing competencies. A committee from the three divisions developed draft standards with the facilitation of a certification consultant. Then a task analysis survey of the field was conducted to determine the validity of the draft standards.2

An issue that has not been resolved is the mechanism for updating the required competencies once a certification program has been established. The recent OCLC report on the current and future landscape of libraries illustrates the necessity of planning certification with future needs in mind; as the future becomes clearer or veers in an unforeseen direction, then competencies in areas of specialization may need to change.3

Issue: Who will deliver the coursework or training for certification participants?

ALA-APA will not endorse specific providers, although every provider must apply to and be approved by the Certification Review Committee for that particular program. Certainly, ALA divisions or units will want to provide opportunities through conferences, regional institutes, online coursework, and publications. The Certification Task Force also hoped that Library and Information Science schools would take advantage of this opportunity to build a larger student base, as practicing librarians enroll in appropriate courses, either online or on campus. Individual consultants, vendors, and on-the-job experience might also offer the necessary preparation for certification. Certification will be granted when an individual demonstrates mastery of the competencies, not when an individual has taken certain courses offered in specified venues.

Issue: How will mastery of the competencies be measured?

Initially, the decision of the Task Force was to measure achievement of the competencies through a validated testing instrument. A test could be conducted equitably and efficiently throughout the country, because the test could be calibrated to be both valid and reliable and scoring would involve minimal or no judgment. The CPLA committee, however, has adopted a broader, more flexible approach by allowing three avenues for assessment: the embedded evaluation of an approved course, a scenario-based exam, or presentation and review of a body of work.4

Although the CPLA approach is much more labor-intensive and requires very clear delineation of successful performance to remove any possibility of bias, it is also more responsive to participants’ needs and the reality of what constitutes “competency.” Certification should be granted for high-quality performance, in other words, for the ability to apply the knowledge and skills to real library situations.

Issue: Will all library workers be eligible for certification?

At the time the Certification Task Force was developing initial guidelines, several entities had been studying the issues of library support staff. Support staff representatives decided that the issues were too complicated and unresolved at that time to include support staff certification in the original structure (e.g., even the basic educational preparation required for every library paraprofessional had not been established, let alone the competencies required for areas of support-staff specialization). Research and planning for an LTA certification program are continuing.

Issue: Will certification guarantee ethical behavior?

The ALA-APA certification program is not set up to guarantee or monitor professional ethics. Applicants for certification or re-certification must sign a code of professional ethics; however, if an individual violates ethical or legal standards, the local community must respond appropriately. ALA-APA will not be involved in censuring individuals or in revoking certification.

Issue: What is the added value of certification?

We who work in libraries recognize the necessity of continuing education, because the field must continually adapt to changes in the needs of our users and the information and technology environments. Deciding what continuing education would be most useful and building a coherent series of professional development experiences can be quite daunting for individuals. Through a certification program, experts in an area of specialization lay out a course of study through the competencies they identify. Providers will respond by offering professional development opportunities aligned with those competencies. With the advent of software systems that accommodate online learning, many providers will be able to extend their courses and workshops to librarians throughout the world. Certification programs provide great potential for library and information science schools across the country to strengthen their own programs and bring in librarians with Master’s degrees for further coursework.

The expectation is that enhanced status or pay will accrue to those who complete certification programs, because their certification will have national validation and reflect achievement of high standards and advanced competency. In addition, because certification provides a pathway for career advancement, libraries may be better able to attract and retain high-quality employees.

Certification in the Future

It is my hope that all divisions of ALA will see the value of developing certification programs for areas of specialization within their field of interest. Some divisions have already taken the first step by developing competencies. In addition to the work of PLA/ASCLA/LAMA on the public library administrator certification, the Reference and User Services division has defined competencies for reference and user services librarians, which were accepted by the RUSA Board at Midwinter 2003. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) updated and approved competencies for librarians serving children in public libraries at Annual Conference 1999. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has defined competencies for librarians serving young adults.

The design of the CPLA program and the ALA-APA mechanisms for implementing the program are still being worked out. That program will serve as a model for future programs. If all other divisions wait until the successful implementation of CPLA before they start developing their own programs, there will be a huge lag between programs. The ALA-APA Executive Board or the ALA-APA Council may want to think about how to provoke broad interest and provide support to help all ALA divisions develop certification programs in appropriate areas. Our patrons will reap the benefits.


  1. See the initial documents at

  2. Linda Bostrom, “The Certified Public Library Administrator,” Library Worklife: HR E-News for Today’s Leaders , Jan. 2004,

  3. The 2003 OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition,

  4. Bostrom, “The Certified Public Library Administrator.”