On My Mind: Library Patrons, Customers, Users, Oh My: What We Call “Patrons” is Important.

My American Libraries Op-Ed

On My Mind:
Library Patrons, Customers, Users, Oh My: What We Call “Patrons” is Important.
By Anthony Molaro

Have you looked around your library lately? Chances are, it’s chocked full of people. Some of these people are staff, some may be faculty members or students, and some are just visitors or an occasional vendor. There is also, however, an even larger group of people which we have significantly more trouble defining.

While recovering from a pretty severe cold, I decided to catch up on some readings I’d been meaning to get to for some time. One of those readings was R. David Lankes’ Work In Progress blog (http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/). Lankes had posted a presentation that caught my interest: “You Must Focus on Connection Management Instead of Collection Management”. In this lecture, Lankes proposes an idea that would forever change my view of librarian/patron interaction. He details a library consultant (Joan Frye Williams) who, in a strategic planning session, decides to end the eternal debate of what we should call library “patrons” by asking the “patrons” directly. The “patrons” responded with an answer that was unexpected. Instead of being called a library “patron”, or “customer”, or “user” more than half of them said they preferred the term “member”. Incredibly, this debate had been ended simply by asking patrons what they preferred to be called.

How we view patrons reflects our philosophical worldview. Much has been written on how “patrons” perceive libraries and librarians, and maybe now is a good time to turn the tables. How do we, as librarians, view our “patrons”? How we perceive “patrons” is reflected in what we call them.

As I reflected on this idea, and blogged about it, several thoughts coalesced at once. First, consider what comes to mind when you think of a:
· library patron
· library customer
· library user
· library member
In my opinion, a worldview that sees library users as patrons is one in which the patron (benefactor) is above libraries. According to this worldview, we should feel lucky that they support our work, and we are forever indebted to them. Some people call this term archaic, while others have no idea what a library patron even is. In the end, the perception is that the patron is above us.

A library customer worldview sees a user as someone who has something that we want (usually money). They are just a number. We don’t owe them anything; on the contrary, they owe us. In contrast to the patron worldview, the perception associated with a library customer is that they are beneath us. The customer needs what we have, but we don’t need them.

A library user worldview sees users as people who consume without creating. This worldview does not acknowledge all that is created inside the walls of libraries. As Lankes states in another talk, computer scientists and drug dealers have users, libraries do not. This term does not really reflect how we view “patrons”. The perception associated with a library user is one in which the user is beneath the library. The user has to have something we have, but we don’t need them. The member needs us, and we need them. This is truly an interdependent relationship.

What does a worldview that sees library users as “members” entail? Membership implies ownership and an active role. Some have argued that members in particular deserve excellent customer service. Moreover, a member’s privileges can be revoked, which is common for someone who has excessive late fines. Most importantly, patrons view themselves as members because they are due-paying and card-carrying persons. The perception of a library member is one of equals.
Membership is social
Dictionary.com defines member as “one of the persons who composes a social group (especially individuals who have joined in a group organization)”. Referring to a patron as a member acknowledges the social role of libraries in the community. Moreover, membership requires action and activity. The library member needs to come into the library, or visit virtually. Whether a “patron” becomes social or active in the library is not a major factor, the important thing is that the library has created an environment in which they can.

This worldview fully demonstrates that library members are co-equals with library staff. Many people proudly join organizations as card-carrying members. They flash their cards, and take pride in their membership. This sociological phenomenon is just waiting for us to tap into.

Preferred Member card
What would libraries look like if we carried this member idea even further? Much like other organizations, institutions, and businesses, libraries should consider implementing a preferred member card program. This preferred member card, purchased through an annual fee, would have perks and privileges. For example, hot new best sellers are purchased for regular patrons and extra copies purchased for preferred patrons. Another example would be no late fines, or extended rental periods. What about an honor roll or special party for preferred members? The preferred member card could be a part of a larger membership and fundraising drive. Much like NPR or PBS, libraries can incorporate preferred membership drives into their National Library Week or National Library card month promotions.

Really, the sky is the limit. The advantages are numerous. Libraries receive a shot of funding, and in this day and age, who doesn’t need a few extra bucks? But the benefits don’t stop there. Both preferred and regular members receive benefits as well. The regular patrons get more materials and services through the funding of preferred members, while the preferred members get rewards for being frequent library users and acknowledgement for being library supporters. Moreover, I know that I would be proud to mention that I am a preferred member of my library, and others would too.

Whether you decide to run with the membership drive or not, it is important to remember that how we view “patrons” impacts how they view us. Your best bet is to ask your “patrons” what they preferred to be called. But keep the term in line with your philosophical outlook. For me, this means a partnership, equals or co-members on the same team. I like the idea that membership is social and active. So I say boldly, that this giant group of people in the library, they are library members with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “On My Mind: Library Patrons, Customers, Users, Oh My: What We Call “Patrons” is Important.

  1. I like the idea of calling Library patrons members. I sometimes battle with myself on the proper terms for describing the people who come in to the library. Thinking of them as members have never crossed my mind. I definitely dont like calling them users as this seems to be derogatory. Thinking of library patrons as members I think makes the patrons feel better as they feel that they are apart of something and that they are contributing instead of: buying when a customer, merely supporting when a patron, and just using when a user. I don’t like the idea of a membership card for special privileges after paying a yearly subscription. This seems to take away from the idea of a free and public library. What about the tax dollars that I already pay to fund public libraries, which can be a pretty hefty sum in many library districts. I would feel that persons with more money to give to a library that I, myself, already contribute to, would have an unfair preference over me for certain library services. Thinking of Library patrons as customers kinda fits well since they have in fact paid for the services with a tax subscription. However the customer title would make me feel as if more money would always be expected of me. If we don’t carry the “customer is always right” mentality though, then they may cease to vote for adequately funding the library; this is could be an argument. All this leads into the discussion of the person who comes to the library being called a patron. I think this a good appellation for such a person because it represents the passion that the person have for the service that Information scientists provide essentially supporting our profession. I think this is similar to a patron of the arts. The artists doesn’t have to feel as if they are being marginalized by the patron but supported. Just as people can create artwork and do create artwork on a regular basis; Library patrons locate, access, store, retrieve, identify, evaluate, synthesize, represent, use, and consider the ethical use of information on a regular basis as well. Just like the patrons of the arts feel as if they need the artist to fulfill a lack of skill in creating art, I believe that library patrons rely on Information Scientists to sate their information needs. I believe however that we are indebted to patrons just as much as they are to us. “Member” is great! Patron is still good in my opinion. Customer, not so good. And user, definitely not…

  2. Yes, I agree entirely. I wrote a similar blog post recently on the same subject and came to the same conclusion. http://philbradley.typepad.com/phil_bradleys_weblog/2012/10/users-members-clients-patrons-owners.html

  3. Pingback: terminology for library peeps | i heart libraries

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