The Power of Naming

Almost all of us of a certain age retain some vestige of memory about how we thought and felt about the cultural shift from the tripartate choice among Mr./Mrs./Miss to a slate in which Mr.’s female correlative of “Ms.”  Whether it was immediately agreeable, or the answer to a personal and even long held political belief, or vaguely uncomfortable, or even disagreeable in its break with tradition, we learned that a simple change in moniker could–and did and still does–provide for allowances of perceptions unavailable when the term didn’t exist or existed only “out there somewhere else unrelated to where I am.”

I bring up that experience at the outset here because it is one I am fairly sure we can share as a baseline for illustrating the power of formal word choice to establish and communicate much more dynamically than mere sound or letter arrangements. With that experience in mind, I invite you along on an exploration of another realm of name calling and what all may be packaged into our choices.

If you work in a public library, do you refer to the non-staff members with whom or for whom you work as customers, or as patrons, as clients or as users? Do you refer to those within this population as members–or is that a term you reserve for church congregations and clubs? Barbara Fister, in a May 30 post on Library Babel Fish, touches on some of these terms as imperfect a match to what each intends to name; I want to push that out a bit because in fact, what each of these words does name may be creating both staff and public expectations that are matched or mismatched to what the library and library staff are prepared to do.

Customer is a market term, indicating the role one plays in trading. Patron denotes a role empowered through money and/or influence backing the promotion of the institution (or person) patronized.  Clients, again, return us to the realm of monetizing, although now with emphasis on service rather than goods as the content of the “purchase.” User, while capable of construing a variety of contextual interpretations from the illicit drug world’s to academic research groupings which are contrasted and compared with controls, also carries the flavor of activist: am I a user when I am not using?  Member, perhaps the most egalitarian and essential of the terms, also happens to connote a closed system, a system into which one has been accepted on the basis of some sort of application.

As Ms. Fister notes in her blog post, the right term doesn’t yet seem to have surfaced,  and so we struggle along with a variety that miss the mark in different ways. In truth, perhaps those who are served, even however theoretically should they not partake of the service, by the public library, fall into each and all of these roles at different times. However, to change up our name calling, to match the specific occasion on which we meet the person in question within our library’s context, would be confusing at worst and so overly constructivist as to be silly at best.

It is urgent to note, nonetheless, that by settling on just one term, and in many libraries having a prescribed administrative selection of what that term shall be, does limit what we are saying–and thinking–about what we provide and how we provide it just as much as it simplifies the object of our provision. Do we hope that the community is simply consumerist (customers) or composed of influential admirers to whom we are beholden (patrons)? Do we imagine that we are in fact effective service providers to all (clients)? Is the community in which we have a role restricted to those who are equally interested in us (users), or that that card carrying business limits those who walk among our collections or speak with us professionally to those who can justify their identities as initiate (members)?

These are extreme description of connotations and denotations and they are meant to be. Tone each and all of them down with some whitewash and nonetheless different hues and orientations will show through. And that’s where it gets interesting: do we have to have the singular perfect terminology? Or does that bit of diversity inform us well–as long as we remember our choice of terminology is on a spectrum of possible orientations?