One of the things I love about language is how inexact it is. I went through a phase of bemoaning that very quality (“Life would be so much simpler if language were more more exact,” or even “Life would be so much simpler if all the rest of you people would use language more precisely”). When this seemed like it could become one of those fruitless grudges that I could harbor for the rest of my life, I decided to like it instead, and then discovered that I’d always liked it. I love learning what words mean to other people and comparing that to what they mean to me.
I apparently also like digressions.
On Sunday, Lori Reed asked the denizens of the LSW FriendFeed room whether they preferred the term Patron or Customer. People expressed preferences, some gave reasons for these preferences, and some proposed alternatives to both terms (with “user” being the most often mentioned).
Most of the time, I talk about “students” or “faculty,” but every once in a while, I need a good collective term. When that happens, I prefer “patron.” I appreciate the mutual respect that it implies, with my services being worthy of patronage and with patrons making the whole existence of the library possible. It may be a rather elderly term (the OED says it originated in the 12th century, after all), but the term “cottage” is even more hoary and hasn’t lost its vigor yet.
I tend not to like “customer” and “user.” When I worked in a bookstore, I sold things to customers, and I don’t enjoy selling stuff. For me, it muddies the waters, and makes me worry that the people I’m working with wonder if I’d even care if they didn’t have money. And while “user” is part of my library vocabulary (“user needs assessment” being a familiar and meaningful phrase for me), if I had to chose one term to the exclusion of all others, I’d stick with patron over user. Aside from sounding like “user” could mean “drug addict,” I mostly prefer my environment to feel less one-sided. A user is one who uses the library’s collections and services. I am one of the library’s services. A user uses me. Two of my favorite things about the work that we do is that it’s so collaborative with other members of our campus community and how much I get out of our interactions, and so I rarely think of our faculty and staff as using me.
For me, “patron” means mutual respect, and so every time I use it, I remind myself that I respect our faculty and students, and that they (ideally) respect me. If “patron” feels like disrespect to you, please don’t use it, but please don’t assume I mean disrespect when I use it.