A New Name For Library Patrons?

One of the big ways that librarians amuse themselves is debating whether to call the people who come into their buildings “patrons”, “clients” or “customers”.  (I wish I was joking about this.  I'm not.) 

I happen to be firmly in the “patron” camp but do recognize that each term does have reasons why librarians choose to use it (or to not use it.) 

Today, while attending a session called “The San Jose Way” which was put on by the Regina Public Library, this ongoing debate was at the forefront – even if it wasn't even addressed directly!

San Jose Public Library has received great attention across North America for their initiatives, all of which come from an extremely customer-focused model of service for their patrons customers.  I liked a lot of what they had to say, disagreed with other parts but I kept coming back to the idea of the “library customer” that underlined their entire presentation. 

There are a few reasons I don't like this term – I think of a customer as someone involved in a financial relationship.  It's true that many library users are involved in a monetary exchange – both in the big picture as taxpayers or occasionally on the micro-level when they pay fines or  charges.  But overall, a core value most librarians treasure is that our programs and services are free.  So bringing a loaded term like “customer” into the equation is misleading at best, corruptive at worst (er, assuming “corruptive” is a word.)

I kept coming back to an idea that Annette DeFavri made in passing during her presentation at CLA 2006 about Systemic Barriers to Library Use.  She said “we're in people's neighbourhoods.  Why don't we call our patrons 'neighbours'?”

She didn't elaborate but that point stayed with me as a brilliant counter to the arguments of the “customer” people. 

Today, during a conversation with an RPL librarian, I refined the idea a bit more…
– neighbours are people you often borrow things from for free with only the expectation that you will return them in a reasonable time
– I would argue that there is a higher level of trust involved when dealing with your neighbours than with retailers
– information exchange is one of the main roles neighbours play for each other
– we often socialize with/at our neighbours (programming)
– many people have a lifetime relationship with their neighbours
– the relationship isn't always a happy one but we usually resolve our differences fairly knowing we have to share space
– you have to close your curtains if you walk around naked (just checking if you're paying attention)

Those are a few off the top of my head.  Any other ideas why library patrons are more like neighbours than customers?  Anyone out there prefer “customer” or “client” as a term and care to share their reasons why?  Anybody want to start a movement to change the word used in libraries across the country to “neighbour”?

Comments 6

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Well, I certainly like “neighbour” more than this suggestion, as made in a workshop at OLA's Superconference 2007:
    Civilians.
    Really? Civilians? The problem that I have with that is that the only purpose it serves is to separate the Librarians even further from the people we serve. It smacks of “us versus them” mentality. So, too, does “customer” and “client” and, to a lesser extent, “patron.” Patron seems to be the word that best denotes a working relationship that is meant to be balanced and working together, as opposed to client or customer where – even if there isn't a financial implication – there is an implied master/servant relationship.
    I'd say “neighbour” is a decent suggestion whose only real contender is the traditional “patron.”
    And, while there is an insurance-company joke to be made somewhere I'm sure, “neighbour” also evokes that most neighbourly of celebrities, Mr. Rogers.
    Who always wore a cardigan.
    And who do we know who likes to wear cardigans and sweater vests more than librarians, hmmm?

    Posted 23 Oct 2007 at 2:11 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    hey neighbour!
    Actually, I'm more of a “user” person myself, but think that term doesn't quite work for most public libraries since they ascribe a different meaning to it; seems fine for academic though.

    Posted 23 Oct 2007 at 2:11 pm
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    I also like “user” but again I'm in academic, so usually I just say “student”.

    Posted 23 Oct 2007 at 8:16 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    How'd I miss “user” on that list? I guess, like you say, I was in a public library mindset. But there are those patrons who mainline public library services and could probably be termed “users”!

    Posted 24 Oct 2007 at 10:19 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    Yeah, for all the similarities, academic is a different world in a lot of ways too.

    Posted 24 Oct 2007 at 10:20 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    Civilian *is* terrible. Neighbour would separate us from the people we serve in a way just because it's a non-traditional term that would probably shock and confuse people. As I said, I mainly like it as the perfect counterpoint to the “customer” crowd.
    At the session, the presenter also kept talking about “civilians” (which I guess makes us “enlisted” people or possibly even “grunts” ) Maybe it was the same presenter? Or some new library buzzword?
    Oh, and I have begun wearing a cardigan I inherited from my grandfather on a daily basis. He wasn't a librarian but instead spent his life as a farmer, house painter and building manager. He did love books though and I never realised how comfortable a cardigan is!

    Posted 24 Oct 2007 at 10:25 pm

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