Learn more about the history of ACRL in this excerpt from Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 3rd edition, New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2010, volume 1, pp. 358-373.

A full history of the association is available on the ACRL website.


Since the late nineteenth century, conferences and meetings of professional groups have been an American institution. They reflect our penchant for association and our passion for professional self-improvement. In 1853 American librarians held their first convention in New York City. About one-fifth of the 81 librarians who attended the meeting were college librarians.(1)  Not until a generation had passed, however, and the crisis surrounding the Civil War was over, did American librarians hold a second national meeting. In the spring of 1876, Melvil Dewey and Frederick Leypoldt sent out their famous call for a conference of librarians to promote “efficiency and economy in library work.”(2) Of the 103 librarians present when the conference convened in Philadelphia in September, 10 were college librarians.(3) The focal point of the 1876 meeting was the reading of papers on practical library subjects such as cooperative cataloging, indexing, and public relations.The response to the program was apparently positive because the conference participants voted on the final day of the meeting to establish the American Library Association and to hold Annual Conferences.

From the beginning the American Library Association was a predominantly public library organization. But, the areas of common interest between public and academic libraries are extensive, and for the first dozen years of the association’s existence the college librarians attending ALA conferences did not hold separate meetings. Finally, in 1889, a group of 13 college librarians caucused at the Annual Conference in St. Louis and recommended that a college library section be formed. The following year at the 1890 Annual Conference in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, 15 librarians representing most of the major colleges of the Eastern seaboard, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Brown, held the first meeting of the College Library Section.(5)  The new section was a small, relatively informal discussion group attended for the most part by administrators who could afford long-distance travel. The annual meetings of the section provided a forum for the presentation and discussion of papers on such topics as reference work, cataloging, departmental collections, union lists, and the like.(6)

In 1897 the section acquired a new name, the College and Reference Library Section (to recognize the participation of reference librarians) and, after the turn of the century, began to select officers to plan annual meetings. Not until 1923, however, did the section adopt its own bylaws and thereby cross the line that separates a discussion group from a section within ACRL today. The 1923 bylaws regularized the existence of the section by establishing a Board of Management with three officers to conduct the business of the section between conferences and provided for the levying of annual membership dues of 50 cents.(7) In the course of the 1920s attendance at section meetings grew from 90 in 1923 to 240 in 1926 and peaked at 800 in 1928 before dropping off to 600 in 1929. The meeting program of the section during the twenties and thirties included general sessions for the whole section as well as separate roundtables for college and reference librarians. The topics discussed at the early section meetings are issues that still confront academic librarians today: faculty status and personnel classification, teaching students, interlibrary loan, library standards, etc.(8)

From 1890 to 1938 the College and Reference Library Section served primarily as a forum for discussion. But, beginning in the 1920s, pressure began to build in the academic library profession for the creation of a stronger professional organization capable of undertaking a broad range of activities, programs, research, and publications. The occasion for a radical restructuring of the section came in the mid-1930s when ALA roundtables representing teachers, college librarians, and junior college librarians expressed the desire to affiliate with the College and Reference Library Section. In 1936 the chair of the section appointed a Committee on Reorganization to develop plans for restructuring the section. The final report of the committee in 1938 recommended the adoption of new bylaws that would transform the section into an Association of College and Reference Libraries with full autonomy over its own affairs. The new bylaws provided for the creation of subsections within the association for college libraries, junior college libraries, teachers college libraries, university libraries, and other groups that might wish to affiliate.


The section approved the proposed bylaws in June 1938 and officially became the Association of College and Reference Libraries (ACRL) by the end of the year. The ALA Council responded by ratifying a new ALA constitution that made provision for the creation of self-governing divisions within ALA, entitled to receive a share of ALA dues. ACRL swiftly prepared a new constitution to meet the conditions for division status, and the ALA Council recognized ACRL as ALA’s first division on May 31, 1940.(9)  The Association of College and Reference Libraries started its new life with six nearly formed subsections of its own: a University Libraries Section, College Libraries Section, Junior College Libraries Section, Agricultural Libraries Section, Librarians of Teacher Training Institutions Section, and Reference Libraries Section. When the Reference Libraries Section departed to join the newly formed Library Reference Services Division in 1956, ACRL substituted “Research” for “Reference” in its name and became the Association of College and Research Libraries.(10) With its sections, chapters and discussion groups, ACRL grew rapidly after its beginnings in 1938: membership jumped from 737 in 1939 to 2,215 in 1941, rose to 4,623 in 1950,(11) and stood at 12,830 in July, 2009.

Communities of Practice

One of ACRL’s primary strengths lies in the effectiveness of its communities of practice, including committees, discussion groups, editorial boards, interest groups, sections, and chapter affiliates in meeting the interests of ACRL’s diverse membership.  Membership in ACRL provides opportunities to become involved with communities of practice (including sections and interest groups) that focus on specializations within the profession.  The 42 chapter affiliates provide members with networking opportunities at the local level throughout the North America.


By 1979 the association had 13 sections: the three “types-of-libraries” sections (College, Community College, and University) plus the Arts Section, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern Section, Anthropology Section, Instruction Section (name changed from the Bibliographic Instruction Section in 1995), Education and Behavioral Sciences Section (into which the old Teachers Training Section was incorporated), Law and Political Science Section, Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, Science and Technology Section (with which the Agricultural Section was merged), Slavic and East European Section, and the Western European Studies Section (name changed from Western European Specialists Section in 2000). Between 1987 and 1990 three more sections were formed: Women’s Studies Section in 1987; African-American Studies Librarians Section in 1989 (name changed from Afro-American in 1997); and the Distance Learning Section in 1990 (name changed from Extended Campus Libraries Services Section in 1998). In 1994 the Literatures in English Section (name changed from English and American Literature Section in 2000) was formed. By 1997 ACRL had 17 sections.

Interest Groups

In 2008, ACRL members approved a bylaws change allowing for the creation of Interest Groups. Members can choose to affiliate with three communities of practice including three interest groups, two interest groups and one section, or one interest group and two sections. By July 2009, six new interest groups were established including Academic Library Services to International Students, Health Sciences, Image Resources, Residency Programs, Universal Accessibility, and Virtual Worlds.


In 1952 ACRL took the first step toward encouraging participation at the local level by recognizing its first local chapter—the Philadelphia Area Chapter. ACRL currently has 42 chapters, two of which include Canadian provinces. The purpose of the chapters is to bring the national organization closer to individual members and to provide programs beneficial to members at the local level.

Discussion Groups

In the 1970s ACRL added a new community of practice to its national organization—the discussion group. By 2008, ACRL had 24 discussion groups. In a sense, the discussion groups are a reincarnation of the original College Library Section. They provide a relatively informal framework for librarians with similar interests to gather to exchange ideas and information.