There’s a word for it and words don’t mean a thing

Over on Library 2.0 Ning, several discussions have started around what we call the people who come through our doors.

Patrons- a word seen as too suggestive of subscription libraries and good deeds.

Users- the common issue with this word is, it makes people who don’t use the services into a negative category; the ‘non users.’

Customers- some prefer this word as it links to customer service. And reflects that people pay. Me, I don’t like it. By itself calling people customers won’t help service get better. It also leads to the Customer-Is-Right idea, for which see Walt Crawford’s discussion and link to a non-library article on this. Edit: here is the article.

 At root I feel that ‘customer’ is a reductive and problematic relationship in community venues.

If pushed, I’d go for ‘visitors.’ This doesn’t judge what people do/don’t do (do they ‘use’ a book?), covers online use and retains some sense of community.

The title of this post is from Talking Heads’ Give me back my name from Little Creatures.

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6 Responses to There’s a word for it and words don’t mean a thing

  1. Michael says:

    See also “readers”, which excludes people who come in to use the Interwebs, and “borrowers”, which only applies to tiny people living behind your skirting board.

    But what’s in a name? The problem comes when our jargon bleeds into the real world and our punters/users/visitors have to deal with it. A lot of the words we use are stupid in a non-library context: a catalogue is what you get from Ikea or Argos and is full of stuff to buy; issue and discharge are things you should see a doctor about; reference is what you need for a job application…

  2. Pete says:

    Haha. Indeed. Away with jargon, at least when we deal with our *insert word here* Although people *can* cope with polysemanticism ;D
    Talking Heads would have us believe that ‘names make all the difference in the world.’ Certainly they can shape our encounters. Would you see a ‘visitor’ differently from a ‘customer.’

  3. Katharine says:

    Working in an academic library, staff often refer simply to “students” and “visitors” (ie non students – visitors not just to the library, but to the University). There is quite a low number of academic staff who visit and I imagine an even lower number of non-academic staff.

    When I use other libraries I think of myself as a “visitor” – (even though I just said “use”). Customers, in my mind, are buying things, (either products or services), and library users, in most libraries, using most services, are not there to buy.

    “Users” to me sounds bad. It makes me think of addicts, and while we all wish that everyone was addicted to library services, they are clearly not.

    I wonder how our clientele see themselves?

  4. Pete says:

    Hi Katharine 🙂 Yes, as I’ve said on Ning we tend to use “staff” and “learner”; describing a place within an organisation. This is not so easy to do in a public library.

    I guess the people who come through our doors (physical and virtual) think of themselves as ‘me.’ And hope that we see them as individuals too 😉 Visitors is as good a word as any as it makes no assumptions about how people engage with us and our services.

  5. I actually prefer “community”–but that’s a collective noun. The individuals within that community? I’ve never found “patrons” offensive or patronizing, so I’ll stick with that word.

    I’d guess most library patrons see themselves as people and don’t worry much about the name for their role in relation to libraries. Just a guess.

  6. Pete says:

    I’d second that Walt. I imagine, as I say, that people see themselves as themselves, and hope we can too. A noun is useful from a planning perspective is all, and patrons/visitors has more of a community feel than customer.

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