Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to: Labeling the People Who Come to the Library

If you're new/newer to this profession, you may not yet be able to recognize when this happens, but there are a few libr* topics that never seem to go away. One conversation that never ends is about what the heck we should call the people who walk in the front door of the library. I don't mean the people who work in the building; I mean the ones who come in to partake of our services. In fact, it was the focus of a post just yesterday on Designing Better Libraries.

Of course I have an opinion on the topic: I tend towards "members of my community" and occasionally throw "library patrons" or even "students, faculty, and staff" into the mix. I also understand why the label can be important: what we call something can frame/influence how we think about it. But I can't help thinking that I'd rather concentrate on improving the services I'm providing to my [fill in the label of your choice]. What to call them is the least of my worries. In fact, the whole, endless discussion reminds me of the song, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

To drive the point home, here's my favorite version of that song:

Thoughts? Do you think the label matters?


  1. Terminology is important, despite our not wanting it to be. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"? Yes, but would we get close enough to smell it? :-)

    I had a job where I worked with people who were entitled to certain mental health or vocational services from the local government. I might have called them clients (which seems to me to be a professional way of referring to them) or beneficiaries (though that implies they actually GOT the services!), but it was VERY IMPORTANT to call them "consumers," the idea being that all people are consumers of things at different times so it isn't stigmatizing. I thought it was kind of BS and certainly didn't help the services they were supposed to be benefiting from.

    Now, this doesn't answer the question of what to call the people who walk into our libraries. It depends on the community, the type of library, the relationship of the library to its umbrella organization (e.g. the university as a whole, the public library system, the law firm it's part of, and so on). That said, as a library student, I use "user" and "patron" in my papers :-)

    1. I hadn't even considered the politicization of terminology. Good point.

  2. Does really matter but it can shape the way you view ... ummm ... the people that utilize library services. Here is my break down.

    Community infers a gestalt whole. We are all in this together and all that. Outreach people tend towards community.

    Patrons infers monetary support. The province of library administrators, managers and trustees.

    Users infers utility over support and cohesion. Think emerging tech, circ and reference librarians that see actual use over time.

    So I think term depends upon what aspect of your community/patron/user-body that you are addressing.

    1. I also like "community" because it implies that the library is also part of the group.

  3. I prefer "members." As a child, having a library card felt like being part of a club that gave me access to things I couldn't get anywhere else. As an adult and future library paraprofessional/ support staff / paralibrarian (there's another argument for you), that same card indicates they chose to come to my library and are my responsibility.

  4. I love the not-so-popular term "customer." I once thought of it as a dirty word until I started working for an organization that insisted all library users be referred to as customers. Using the word "customer" just started to make sense as I moved up within the organization and began to see more clearly the role of the library within the community.

    As a library shelver, it really made no difference to me if the person was called a patron or a customer because in that position big-picture thinking isn't a part of the job description. As a supervisor, however, the term inspires a little bit more thought.

    I'm also a big fan of the term "member" which Aaron Schmidt advocated for in his Library Journal column.

  5. "User" gets confused in my mind with "substance abuser" so I wouldn't use that term except maybe within the confines of a website usability test. I think the pronoun choice is interesting, too. We get kind of possessive about it... OUR med students, MY residents, YOUR faculty... that's definitely how we librarians talk to each other about the different services we offer to these different groups. It's harder to find the right language to use with those groups to communicate that we consider them "ours" and are invested in their success.