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.

16 thoughts on “Reader. Patron. User. Member. Why Not Customer?”

  1. Sure names are important but I doubt that it makes such a difference how you name library users/patrons/customers/community-members/… Anyway one needs to put the people into focus instead of the holdings or the bibliographic data or the catalog. And one should be honest about the product or service which a library actually serves. As long as libraries assume that it’s something like “finding information”, it does not make any difference how they call the people which in fact find their information on Google but can be pleased by other services.

  2. I personally prefer Member… but in the libraries I work with Patron is usually the preferred term. I also try to sneak the work Customer in there sometimes, though, just to get people thinking a little differently. Or maybe I just want to get a reaction. 🙂

  3. We prefer “patron.” “Customer” is hardly more personal than user, and I’m not sure I would describe patron behavior as “choosing our product” over another. The public library or college library the patron uses is not likely to have a competitor in the same sense as a retail concern has competitors. Offering good service should not require you to think of patrons in retail terms.

    1. Thanks for your comment Cathy. Just a thought. Even though they are not competitors in the traditional sense, we must acknowledge that your patrons do have other options for obtaining books, media and other forms of library content. I agree. Good service should be a basic expectation. But is that sufficient when there are other options. The point of looking to how those competitive retailers create new customers and build them into loyal ones is something from which we can learn. I think we can go beyond what typically passes for good service – and that it must extend to all our touchpoints – not just what happens at a physical desk.

  4. Personally I think ‘customer’ is just as ‘impersonal’ as any other collective name for the people who make use of our services and facilities.

    However,while I think that ‘semantic navel gazing’ is in the main an unwanted distraction it can’t be denied that the way we refer to our ‘members’ says something about the way we view them, and we undoubtedly need some way of referring to them.

    My personal preference, for what it is worth, is for ‘member’ as for me it implies a richer relationship than many of the other alternatives. Perhaps the best way I can illustrate this to compare the public defense of libraries in adverse times with the almost total lack of sympathy when a high profile high street name goes under, the latter being organizations that would not consider that they had anything other than customers.

    These things are never clean cut but I do believe that libraries at their best strive to have a much more symbiotic relationship with their members than the term customer implies.

  5. I am a customer at the local big box stores and supermarket where I shop. These days I think customers are people who are marketed to, lured in to places to spend money, given attention which much of the time rarely feels personalized (although in the small place I live many store employees do know me).

    I go to an extremely small post office (one small room) and the post master there knows me by name, knows if I have been to check mail in a few days, etc. That’s more a model I connect to our service.

    I may just be very jaded about what has happened to the way businesses operate. And certainly the word customer could be liberated from it current primary use. I am not yet convinced I want to try.

  6. And – an addendum to my post above. Think Zappos – and maybe that’s the customer model we want. Because the happiness and satisfaction of the customer is predicated on the happiness of staff.

  7. Although it can seem academic, the discussion of language is an important one as it is a powerful mechanism for influencing perception and, consequently, reality. While there is much to learn from the world of customer service, the use of terms like ‘customer’ and ‘client’ in public service, influences our thinking. Following business models subtly and profoundly changes our thinking….forcing us to consider services that support the public ‘good’ as financial liabilities – unless they produce a direct economic benefit. As we watch the erosion of the welfare state, we can see that the idea of free public services become liabilities – if it can’t pay for itself, it has no value.

    Our relationships with our communities are more meaningful and deeper than the transactional relationship between a customer and a service provider. We do not seek to ‘sell’, we seek to ‘share’. We are partners…we are a fellow members of those same communities…we ARE our communities. We, of all people, should know that the choice of words has PROFOUND influence in the area of social control. If we maintain that libraries serve members of our communities, we are clearly defining the relationship we have with our communities and our underlying commitment to the public good. And some things are just worth paying for by the collective, if we are to sustain democratic discourse.

  8. Librarians need to get over themselves. Unlike the other terms, Customer implies that we are not a club or other exclusive institution, but an institution that serves people….who matter…and who can go somewhere else. Until libraries are able to verbalize the term Customers they are doomed to live in their own exclusive world that will end when those “patrons” go somewhere else for their brain food.

  9. You know, Bill, were librarians the only ones having this conversation, I might agree with you. But the “navel gazing” about how different businesses refer to their customers has gone on for years in different industries, and there is good reason. Like so many terms that might have a different connotation than their given meaning, terms used to refer our supporters on whatever level go in and out of style quickly. This is only exacerbated by the information age, where memes and topics go in and out of style more quickly than a celebrity scandal. This conversation will continue, and while it will never have a final and definitive answer, there are good reasons (based on respect and good service to our customers, no matter what we call them) we should continue to do so on occasion.

  10. Dear discussion from five years ago:

    “Customer” implies that a library patron is a resource that money can be extracted from. I think preference shows a bias towards the capitalist system; proponents of the term are probably thinking of the ways that companies go out of their way to appease their customers, rather than the end goal of doing so, which is to get as much of their money as possible while providing the least amount of goods and services. Libraries are better than that, providing services for patrons based on what they need, ideally without obsessing about making a profit from it in the process – one of the ways in which the business world/capitalist system is contaminating social services is the idea that every such public entity should have to turn a profit, but that’s ridiculous – the value is in the services themselves, thus provided. It’s okay if a library or post office or hospital costs more to run than it takes in, because there’s value in those things in and of themselves.

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