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What Do Libraries Call Users, and What Do Library Users Think of Themselves in relation to Libraries?

 

Do library users think of themselves as library “patrons?”

In American Libraries Magazine, Anthony Molaro wrote a piece titled “Just Who Do We Serve?”  There, Molaro mentioned an interesting fact that caught my eyes. Did you know that library users actually preferred to be called “member” rather than “patron”, “customer,” or “user?” According to a recent survey, that is the case.

“You Must Focus on Connection Management Instead of Collection Management” R. David Lankes posted in his Work In Progress blog a while ago. He details a strategic planning session in which library consultant Joan Frye Williams decided to end the eternal debate about what we should call library patrons by asking them directly. Unexpectedly, those surveyed responded that instead of being called a library “patron,” or “customer,” or “user,” more than half preferred the term “member.”

(Side note: Some information about the survey mentioned is found at http://www.newlibrarianship.org/wordpress/?page_id=1052 . See the second comment by Lankes. Thanks to David Lankes for the link.)

Throughout my entire library career since early 2000s, the term that refers to library users which I heard most from the library staff was “patron.” I don’t recall any library staff calling a library user “customer” or even “user” back then.  As a very new part-time library assistant, I took it that this term “patron” meant pretty much “customer” in the sense that it is the customer (=patron in the library) that is the king.

At that time, I found the term “patron” odd and was curious about the fact that libraries were so patron-oriented. As a total library novice, I found the term ‘patron’ antiquated. (Could be just me, I admit.) Secondly, I just had no idea that libraries I frequented had such a patron-oriented culture even though I was a good library user/grad student. I was greatly impressed and amazed at how seriously the library staff take each and every small comment they receive from their “patrons.”

Now of course, I no longer feel the same curiosity about the term ‘patron,’ as I was brainwashed through my formal LIS education. (Kidding, kidding… ) But I still feel odd calling a library user “library patron.”   When I hear the term “patron,” I automatically think of patrons of the arts and culture, like the Medici who were the patrons of Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Now, certainly library users don’t consider themselves as playing the role of that kind of “patron.” Do they? If patronage means just some support, probably a term for this type of patronage that library users can better relate to would be rather “friends of the library.”

Library membership = CVS or Costco Membership?

I am not against the idea that as the library staff, we do and should strive to create and support the maximum satisfaction of library users. I am just pointing out that there seems to be some interesting difference between how libraries and library staff view library users in their operation and how library users consider themselves in relation to the libraries they frequent.

Side note: I have realized that I often use the term “user” to refer to library patrons. But that’s just because I work mostly in the context of web services. I use this term ‘user’ out of habit, not as any result of reflection. Interestingly, I found that some who work in the areas of web design and development (not library-related) actually prefer a term different than “user.” Jenifer Hanen, a web developer/designer, said once on Twitter that she preferred “people” or “customers / clients” opposed to “user.” I am guessing here, but it is probably because all the other terms than “user” seems to imply that they are not just some abstract entity that comes into a website and click links but the actual people with certain interests and preferences etc.

The survey result that Molaro cites seems to point out the very same kind of  interesting difference that I have noticed between how libraries and library staff view library users in their operation and how library users consider themselves in relation to their libraries. It shows that library users (in lieu of no better term here) think of themselves as library members rather than library patrons, library customers, or library users.

Molaro continues to detail his view on what each term is likely to signify. According to him, “library patron” as a term represents the worldview in which libraries are indebted to them, patrons. By the way, this matches with what this term brings to my mind.

“Library user,” on the other hand, makes Molaro think of those who consume without creating. And he opposes to the use of this term because, in his opinion, this term implies that the users need something the library offers but the library do not need them.  I disagree on this. I actually like the term ‘library user’ because it always reminds me of the fact that there are many other places where they can go for their information needs. It reminds me that libraries are not the only source for them and it is unrealistic to, say, argue that all library users should start their research at their library homepage rather than Google. But again, this could be just me working mostly in library web services.

Molaro likes the term “library member” since he thinks that this term implies ownership and an active role. And he says “people served by libraries view themselves because they carry a library card.” Now, I am in 100% favor of library users or patrons or members having the feeling of ownership and active role in relation to their libraries. But I do not think that library users prefer to be called library members because of the feeling of ownership and their active role in libraries.

I carry and use the CVS and the Costco card. This doesn’t make me feel ownership towards these companies, or in any way I imagine myself playing an active role in them. Am I a member? Probably,  since I have a card, a membership card.  If the membership costs money, then, definitely the term, ‘membership’ is more fitting because it implies that some kind of services and privileges are rendered to me once I join (whether free or not). I get points at CVS and enter/buy stuff in bulk at a lower price at Costco with my membership. Now as a library member, I don’t pay the membership fee, but I get to borrow books and other library items. So there, in my mind, I am a member in relation to my local library just as I am a member of CVS or Costco.

I am not saying that this is the mental perception that libraries want their users/patrons/members to have in relation to them. I am simply saying that this might be the actual mental image that most of our library patrons/users/members have about their relation to their libraries.

The Million-Dollar Question

If libraries want those people who sign up for a library card to feel the ownership to their library and play an active role, what can they do to achieve that?  Molaro thinks that perhaps “Preferred Member card” can help in this respect. He says:

Much like other organizations, institutions, and businesses, libraries should consider implementing a preferred member card program. This preferred member card could be purchased through an annual fee and would have perks and privileges. For example, hot new bestsellers are purchased for regular library members and extra copies purchased for preferred members. Perhaps preferred members would not be subject to late fines, or entitled to extended loan periods, being cited on an honor roll, or invited to a special party? 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.

Well, what do you think? I am divided on this idea for many reasons. And I am not going to go into those reasons here, because at this point, many of us, librarians, will have minds bouncing left and right and up and down just thinking about those reasons and what the best direction would be. So it might be the best to let them percolate a bit before shooting ideas to the sky.

In the meantime, it would be worthwhile to just break down the question to see where the difficulty exactly stems from. It really originates from the conflict of these two things:

  1. How do you make the library members care about their libraries?
  2. Anyone can become a library member (no investment required) and there is nothing they gain by being an active member (no incentive provided).

Just as a reminder, we all know that libraries do 2. intentionally as its mission is not to generate profit but to provide equal access to information for both the under-served/underprivileged and the well-to-do. Now 2. has the problem:  no investment and no incentive. Human beings tend to care much less about the things they get for no investment; they are also highly likely to be involved very little with things that they have no incentive to do so.  So 2. creates an obstacle to achieving 1.

How can libraries achieve 1. without endangering 2.?  That’s a million dollar question for libraries.


2 Comments

  1. Mark Notess says:

    Seems like there’s a large difference in perception and relationship depending on whether we’re talking about public libraries or academic libraries or…. No?

    Regardless, I don’t like “member” because it connotes exclusivity. “Patron” may be antiquated, but so are libraries, to some extent, in the best sense. So I lean towards “patron”. “Customer” is too commercial, and “user” (though I am a UX person and therefore inclined to consider the world to be populated by users) is too sterile.

    You ask good questions. Caring is engendered by the experience (there’s my UX again) the institution provides. As most library people have recognized, the library experience needs to transform to accommodate the remarkable cultural shifts we are living through. Those are transformations of place/space, interaction/connection, and services. (Sounds like the beginning of an essay, but I’ll stop here for now.)

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the comment! The perception can differ when it is about a public or an academic library. But for both types of libraries, the cost of library operation is hidden to users (public library- tax; academic library – tuition). Both types of libraries struggle to help their patrons to realize the value of library service and to see their libraries as a kind of community to which they belong rather than , say a shop they come in for free book or other library-item check-outs. The notable difference might be the relatively high involvement of parents with kids/children who actively use the services of libraries. I suspect to them libraries would be more like a community. (I have never worked at a public library. So this is a pure guess.)

    I agree that ‘user’ can sound sterile. I just don’t like to contribute to making ‘library’ look more antiquated by using ‘patron’ particularly if ‘library’ itself feels antiquated. : )

    You make a good point about the connection between caring and experience. People don’t care about things that they do not relate to at a certain personal level. Unfortunately such sense of caring is becoming harder and harder to generate in the current culture shift to information overload. abundant distraction, shorter attention span, and the overall devaluation of public goods and services in general.

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