Reader. Patron. User. Member. Why Not Customer?

It’s perhaps one of the most asked questions among librarians. What do you call the people who use your library? Based on my own reading of the literature, our listservs and many conversations, “users” and “patrons” are the most used terms. My own preference is “community member”. I like it because I think of our library as serving the community-at-large, in addition to our own students and faculty, but those from other institutions, the general public and whomever may be in need of our services. They are all members of the community we serve. Admittedly, when in conversation with colleagues at my institution, I may simply use patrons as a convenient way to discuss them and their needs. It is a terminology with which librarians are comfortable.

The one term we intentionally avoid using to describe those we serve is “customer”. For many librarians “customer” suggests or implies that we are engaged in a for-profit business activity as opposed to providing a community service. Despite the practical implications of thinking of those who use our services as our customers, it just feels wrong. This question of terminology was the subject of the ACRL discussion group over at LinkedIn. In response to a question about the favored term for a library users, list members shared their common labels: patron, library user, and client. Others said that in their academic communities, library users were simply referred to as student, faculty or staff. There was no avoiding the customer question. This comment from the discussion reflects the prevailing attitude about “customer”

The word ‘customer’ in an academic setting feels wrong to me, meaning that I feel we don’t want to become too corporate in culture. ‘Patron or member’ gives more of the feel and tradition of academic pursuits, which are often inherently NON-corporate in nature. Plus, it keeps a bit of ‘soul’ in using ‘patron or member’.

Does it really matter that we may be academic or non-profit, and that the word “customer” somehow pollutes our noble cause with the filth of corporate culture? Try suggesting to faculty there may be benefits to thinking of students as customers – then wait for the backlash. Sounds a bit elitist. Now consider the perspective of an academic librarian who wants to design and deliver a better user experience. I see some value in doing so.

Thinking of a customer rather than a user could drive us to be more thoughtful about our intentions. We want them to have great library experiences just as they would expect as customers at other service providers. By focusing on customers we can me more creative and imaginative about those things we need to do to make it happen. Gerry McGovern, the web design analyst, came out strongly in favor of customers over users. I think he makes a good point about “user”. He says it is a word that “lacks empathy”, a skill we need if we expect to emotionally connect with our users. User, rather than customer, gives us a way to refer to our constituents that makes them less real, less human. A user is a soulless entity. A customer is human.

Perhaps Jack Dorsey, one of the co-founder’s of Twitter, said it best with “let’s stop distancing ourselves from the people that choose our products over our competitors. We don’t have users, we have customers we earn. They deserve our utmost respect, focus, and service. Because that’s who we are.” I like it, but do our libraries offer products (books, databases, media, etc) or something less customer-like such as enlightenment, knowledge or lifelong learning. Not the exact sort of things you vend to customers. Must it be all of one and none of the other? Perhaps a more sensible approach is to add customer to our library vocabulary when we talk about the customer experience; when we want to think of our community members as something more than members by default or mere recipients of content. At other times, when discussing annual statistics, user probably sends the right message.

I think there is always some discomfort in the library world when we refer to the people who live in our communities, who compose the student body or who teach and conduct research, as something impersonal as user or reader. Let’s just be more connected to them. Community member may work for you sometimes, but think about those other times when you want to say “customer” but you hold back for all the usual reasons. Break the rules.