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Redesigning Services at The Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc.

Loretta Parham and Carolyn Hart

The Robert W. Woodruff Library (RWWL) serves the instructional, informational, and research needs of the four member institutions of the Atlanta University Center (AUC), the world’s largest and oldest consortium of historically black colleges and universities. The institutions served by the library are Clark Atlanta University, the Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. The RWWL collection exceeds one million items, and its archives and special collections department is noted for its extensive materials documenting the African-American experience and the rich history of the AUC schools.

The RWWL features a governance structure unique among academic libraries. It operates as an independent, nonprofit entity governed by an 11-member board of trustees under the leadership of a chief executive officer (CEO)/library director. The board includes the college and university presidents1, an academic officer, a faculty member, three at-large members not affiliated with AUC, and the CEO/library director. This structure is the result of bold and strategic steps taken in 2000 by the Council of Presidents of the AUC. Library services at that time had been declining, largely because of a governance structure that posed too many bureaucratic obstacles for the library director, inadequate funding, and unstable leadership. As a result, students and faculty were not being served effectively. An expert panel chaired by Billy E. Frye, former chancellor of Emory University, documented this environment. Other panel members were Deanna Marcum, then president of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR); Joan Gotwal, dean of libraries at Emory University; and James Williams, dean of libraries at the University of Colorado. The panel’s report, known by RWWL staff as the “Frye report,” made several recommendations, all of which were unanimously approved in 2002 by the Council of Presidents. The recommendations were as follows:

  • Incorporate the library as an independent unit.
  • Reappropriate the library budget and place full authority and accountability for its management in the hands of the library director.
  • Improve security.
  • Develop a communications strategy.
  • Establish institutional library liaisons.
  • Create a council on information resources and technology.
  • Appoint an interim library director.
  • Recruit a CEO/library director.
  • Deliver a visioning and planning process.

In 2003, the library completed a strategic plan. One priority in this plan was to design and implement a service improvement strategy. Thanks to generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, RWWL began to systematically rethink its organization and staff and how it should deliver services to students and faculty. The Atlanta-based Caleris Consulting, LLC, was engaged to work with the library management team (LMT) and staff to develop a service improvement strategy and an implementation plan. This initiative was linked to the RWWL vision: “to be the first choice for our users in their search for information.” It was named “Project First Choice” in alignment with this vision.

Essential in framing the service redesign process was the establishment of a comprehensive strategy that addressed all critical service areas in the library, i.e., reference, instruction, collection development, interlibrary loan (ILL), and circulation. As a first step, the LMT reviewed the library’s strategic plan. On the basis of this review, the team decided to create a work plan that would guide the library in its efforts to improve services and to enhance the user’s service experience at all stages-from prearrival to departure.

The approach to the project was based on three principles: key process identification and improvement, stakeholder collaboration, and improved communications. The team anticipated that these principles would become institutionalized within the organization as the project moved forward. Project First Choice was guided not only by the priorities established in the RWWL strategic plan but also by feedback from a student focus group representative of the four institutions supported, recommendations from previous consultants’ reports, and the RWWL library advisory council (LAC).

Key participants in the assessment and redesign process were as follows:

  • AUC student focus group: Undergraduate and graduate students representing member institutions.
  • Library advisory council: Faculty (two per member institution) representing the interests of academic departments and disciplines.
  • Library management team: Department heads representing archives and special collections, information and research services, information technology, access and technical support (including periodicals and government documents), circulation, human resources, security, shuttle, and finance.
  • Service improvement teams: Composed of staff from service areas across the library and responsible for assessing improvement needs. Chaired by members of the LMT.
  • Service improvement implementation teams: Composed of RWWL staff responsible for implementing specific service improvement plans. Chaired by members of the LMT.

Project Methodology

Woodruff Library Service Value Chain Development
Project First Choice service improvement initiative was a seven-month, in-depth project using the principles of value chain development (Porter 1985). The value chain model is a useful tool for analyzing an organization’s core competencies and activities. Its goal in the business world is to gain a competitive edge. For the purposes of this project, the goal was performance excellence.

As a starting point, the value chain model required that the library identify the value-generating activities unique to its vision. The project began with a holistic examination of the critical processes and activities of the library that were of value to its users. Workshops were conducted by Caleris Consulting and the LMT to discuss team expectations and project approach, to conduct a leadership-and-change exercise (“Who Moved My Cheese?”), to validate service components of the value chain, and to determine the functional units critical to value chain effectiveness for service redesign. A team comprised of LMT members was assembled to identify, set priorities for, and recommend steps to improve those processes identified as critical to achieving the library’s vision. Processes, activities, and tasks that were working acceptably were excluded from consideration.

The service value chain targeted its improvement efforts on four processes and the key activities associated with them.

  • Prearrival focused on events and activities that occur before a user enters the library. This area was important because of the existence of issues that had historically discouraged users from coming to the library. Members of the student focus groups brought up a range of concerns, from security to parking. It was felt that addressing these concerns and creating an effective marketing campaign would remove many of the barriers that kept users from coming to the library. Key activities to be addressed included security, parking, hours of operation, phone calls, marketing (scope of services), and shuttle service.
  • User Interaction considered all points of interaction with users as they entered the library or interacted with the library, whether face-to-face, on the phone, or through signage. Particular emphasis was directed to activities that relied on personal contact and to improving the way in which these services were provided. Key activities examined included entry into the library; phone requests; explanations, consultations, and signage; staffing; study space; communication of library services; and implementation of feedback.
  • Education and Orientation examined education and orientation of users to library services. Collaboration and teaming between faculty and library subject specialists emerged as the highest priority for improving the quality of information service delivery. Key activities identified included user and staff training, library tours and library orientation, outreach to faculty, “how tos” (user-guidance tools), consultation, information literacy, Web-based instruction, and training labs.
  • Information Search and Retrieval focused on improvements in the information acquired, in where it is acquired, and on best practices used to retrieve it. Key activities were collection development (books, articles and journals, and electronic information), collection acquisition, reserves, archives, finding aids, remote access, Web site, ILL, audiovisual usage, copy machines, and checkout.

Setting Priorities for Improvement
Priority matrices were developed for key activities of functional areas in the value chain, based on their current effectiveness and their impact on the critical process in question. For example, marketing, security, and shuttle service were rated to be the most critical to prearrival; orientation/tours, outreach to faculty, and user/staff training were most critical to education and orientation. Each activity was ranked into one of three categories of concern: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The highest-priority areas in each service value chain activity were addressed first. Major tasks for high-priority activities were examined to understand what happens during service delivery. The teams analyzed each step within the major tasks to identify problem areas.

The customer-supplier model was used to determine users’ current satisfaction levels. This model requires that for each major task associated with a key activity, the team identify the key customer, customer requirements, how the organization currently meets those requirements, and the deliverable. Each of these factors contributes to a determination of customer satisfaction. During problem analysis, the team discussed and documented reasons for customer dissatisfaction and applied root-cause analysis to find and address the source of the problem. Each step in the customer-supplier model provided the teams with data that they could use to develop service-improvement strategies. This process was also informed by feedback from the AUC student focus group, consultants’ reports, and the LAC.

Service Improvement Teams and Staff Participation
The LMT considered the value chain as it applied to activities across all services and support areas in the library. By taking this broad view, the group determined which functional areas within the library would best work together to improve overall key processes. This perspective provided guidance in selecting service improvement team members and chairs. Each team developed goals, an operating vision, and objectives. The objectives linked each of the activities (e.g., hours of operation, study space, library tours/orientation, remote access) to specific goals.

Service improvement implementation teams were formed to execute action plans. These teams were chaired by members of the LMT along functional lines. The teams met twice a week to work on specific tasks and convened collectively on a weekly basis to share outcomes and to incorporate feedback across functions. Caleris facilitated the cross-functional workshops and provided support to individual team meetings as needed. RWWL staff members were kept informed of team progress at every phase of the project. More than 80 percent of the RWWL staff participated in the project from development to implementation. This high level of staff involvement fostered commitment and library-wide buy-in. A part-time librarian was employed to help manage reference services while the subject specialists participated in the service assessment and redesign project.

Development of an Improvement Strategy
The service improvement teams took a probative look at the activities identified as dysfunctional or not working effectively and brainstormed ways to accomplish the key activities. During this process, three primary improvement strategies emerged. These strategies were the most critical elements of the library’s overall service approach. They included all the critical tasks and the desired outcomes that became the primary focus of the implementation teams and ultimately guided the development of the implementation plans. The three strategies were as follows:

  • An information services strategy was used to improve the quality of information in the library and user’s ability to access that information. The key results included subject specialist/faculty partnerships, a faculty/student orientation plan, and a revised collection development policy.
  • An operations improvement strategy was used to identify and improve the most critical service processes. Key results were a joint campus security plan, an automated ILL process, reduction of the archive backlog, and a parking plan.
  • An administrative and support strategy was used to identify and improve functions, with special attention to those that require cross-departmental support. The key results included a performance management system, a comprehensive training agenda, a communications plan, Web site assessment and recommendations, a complaint-management process, and security policies and procedures.

Implementation Planning
In preparing to move to the implementation phase, the service improvement teams looked at all service processes (key activities and associated tasks) across the library to determine how the various tasks fit together. Seven common categories of tasks were identified (see table 1). Service improvement implementation teams, responsible for executing action plans for service redesign, were then formed. Team composition was based on the seven common categories of task groupings. Detailed information on task groupings is provided at


Table 1. Service Implementation Team Composition and Task Categories

Development of Action Plan for Service Redesign
Specific problems with service inefficiencies and user dissatisfaction were summarized, and solutions were recommended. Each service improvement implementation team articulated what was to be accomplished, who would accomplish it, and how success would be measured. The teams also provided a timeline. Review of work completed in previous phases of the project (customer-supplier model, root-cause analysis, improvement ideas, etc.) and the output of strategic planning and user surveys informed this process. Action plans were developed for implementation in alignment with improvement strategies. A detailed implementation plan is available at

Key Outcomes

Outcomes realized by fall 2006 for each of the primary improvement strategies are summarized below.

Information Services Improvements

Operations Improvements

  • Enhanced security around the perimeter of and within the library, including installation of a closed-circuit TV monitoring system
  • Improved the management and appearance of library parking lot
  • Automated a reserve-request process and piloted an eReserves system
  • Automated the ILL; deployed ILLIAD
  • Converted to a new telephone system and revised the auto attendant script
  • Merged archives and special collections onto one floor and implemented new staff model
  • Developed “Envisioning the Robert W. Woodruff Library: A Master Plan for the 21st Century,” an ambitious plan for space redesign
  • Doubled group-study spaces
  • Deployed new, multifunctional copiers throughout the library

Administrative and Support Improvements

  • Developed an evening/weekend rotation model and included all public service librarians in the schedule
  • Deployed a new online performance-appraisal system using newly defined competencies
  • Expanded library hours, standardized opening and closing hours, piloted a 24/7 operation schedule
  • Developed comment/suggestion forms for complaint management and made them available at public service points and via library’s Web site
  • Revised the library’s Web site twice
  • Updated the human resources handbook
  • Provided remote access with user authentication available through EZproxy
  • Established Inside Woodruff, an employee newsletter
  • Established a library intranet site
  • Planned a student/faculty laptop loan program for spring 2007

Postproject Evaluation–Online User Survey
During the spring 2005 semester, RWWL conducted an online survey of AUC faculty and students to assess the effectiveness of its resources and services. Survey responses will be used as a baseline for future surveys and to target areas for improvement. Key findings are listed below. Faculty concerns centered overwhelmingly on library collections. For example:

  • Less than half of faculty (41 percent) reported that the library’s collections adequately supported their needs.
  • Eighty-three percent of faculty reported they used the library collections.
  • Sixty percent accessed the collection through the library’s Web site, and 81 percent accessed it from the library.
  • Ninety-four percent of faculty would recommend RWWL to their students, but only 66 percent indicated use of any area (metropolitan Atlanta) libraries for their own research.
  • Twenty-three percent of faculty reported there were no barriers to using the library, 55 percent reported barriers to library resources, and 35 percent indicated that parking was a barrier.
  • Faculty members used the Web site and ILL (65 percent and 56 percent, respectively) more often than any other services.
  • Two-thirds of faculty knew the names of their subject specialists.
  • Eighty-one percent of faculty members stated that they were completely satisfied with RWWL orientation and instruction service, but only 46 percent had used the service.

Student responses were more favorable than those of faculty; nonetheless, they showed clear room for improvement.

  • Students rated their overall experience in accomplishing tasks at RWWL very high (94 percent), but only 56 percent considered RWWL their first place to go for information to complete class assignments.
  • Students’ top five reasons for visiting the library were a quiet study place (28 percent), computer lab (15 percent), circulation desk (13 percent), reference desk (12 percent), and e-mail/Internet use (10 percent).
  • Eighty-four percent of students visited the library Web site. The top three reasons were to search databases (78 percent), to check for a book or publication (55 percent), or to check hours of operation (48 percent).
  • One-third of students reported there were no barriers to visiting the RWWL. Forty-eight percent reported that hours of operation were a barrier, and 31 percent indicated library resources were a barrier.


Project First Choice provided a solid framework for future strategic planning within the RWWL. With robust participation from key stakeholders throughout the project, many lessons were learned.

First, it was essential to continually seek feedback to identify gaps in service delivery and service expectations. This initiative illustrated the power of designing organizational structures and processes that allow immediate, effective, and appropriate response to expressed and emerging needs of users. As of April 2005, more than 90 percent (30 of 33) of the action items outlined in the Project First Choice plan were completed. Although the 2005 online survey and informal feedback from students and faculty indicated that the newly implemented initiatives had made a difference in how the library was used and perceived, it reinforced the need for continuous assessment and for development of a formal library assessment plan and strategy. The library will use the ARL LibQual+ assessment for students and faculty of all four member schools in the spring of 2007.

Continuing to build on the momentum created by Project First Choice, the library has established a staff position dedicated to organizational planning and assessment. In addition, RWWL recently held its first strategic planning retreats, initially with the board of trustees to develop strategic priorities and then with Woodruff staff to identify goals and objectives for the library’s strategic plan. Annual action plans will be used to guide and evaluate efforts and accomplishments.

As a result of the work completed through Project First Choice and the strategic initiatives implemented under the leadership of a new CEO/library director, the Robert W. Woodruff Library is better positioned to reflect the excellence of its member institutions and to realize its vision of being “the first and best choice” to meet the information needs of the students, faculty, and staff of the Atlanta University Center.


Porter, Michael. 1985. Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance. New York: Free Press.


1 The Morehouse School of Medicine is a member of the AUC but is not served by RWWL.

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