Patrons? Customers? Users? Clients?

It’s only words and words are all [we] have
The Beegees

While school libraries, however otherwise beleaguered they may be (and definitely are!) can rest with relative ease on the habit of calling those who make use of them “students,” and sometimes “teachers” or other identifications that refer to the functional identity held beyond the library, public library staff have fiddled for over a century to find the most suitable term by which to call both those who use the library and, with the quick addition of “non-” or “potential,” those who don’t. My email brings daily suggestions that I enter online discussions in various professional and off-hours forums to discuss such topics as “losing patronage,” and “giving customers what they want.” The standard nomenclature applied to these members of the public vary among the four I question in the title here. It’s past time for us to define those we serve, and for whom we work in public libraries, according to who they are rather than according to what we need them to be for the library’s sense of commitment to them.

We work in a field where words are prioritized as our chief form of communication. We need to think about which ones we use, what they mean when heard, and whether they are as accurate as any we can choose. We do, in all but the worst cases, have patrons. Patrons sponsor, finance, contribute through backing or other benefit, and donate to the institution who “has” them. Customers, on the other hand, buys goods or services from a business, so when someone buys something like city-required garbage bags available through us, perhaps they are customers, and perhaps even when, at just a bit of stretch, when they pay for interlibrary loan requests. Users, as a functional identity, must match their activities to whatever it is that we are counting. And clients share particular attributes of customers in terms of presuming a monetized model, while at the same time being forced into activities that rely specifically on accessing professional services.

Each of these names focuses on us, the public library, and skips over why we do what we do from the standpoint of community service and resource. Fire departments indeed quell–or work to quell–fires and other emergency situations on a needs basis, and we don’t identify those who turn, or fail to turn, to the fire department when things that shouldn’t start to smell smoky patrons, customers, clients, or even users. They are, in any of the sets of circumstances in which they are being and doing fire fighter stuff (responding to emergencies, providing professional safety checks, organizing proactive safety awareness programs), working with and for members of the community.

Which is the same population with whom we be and do library stuff. Can we turn the floodlights off us and shine them where they need to be focused? I want my public library to focus on community members and figure out from there what that should and can entail.