Skip to content

What’s In a Term?

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.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Mark Mark

    Love this, Iris!


  2. Iris Iris

    Thanks, Mark. :-)

    As usual, there's a discussion over on the FriendFeed thread.

  3. historylibrarian historylibrarian

    Why not researcher?

  4. Tom Tom

    I have a palpable disdain for "customers." I'm not sure "patrons" is ideal, but I can't think of any ideal term, so I usually go with "patrons." "Patron" also suggests an exchange of money, but I find it a little more neutral or something. It suggests more of a paying guest (which our students are) than an imminent exchange of money. Or, perhaps, I just think too hard about these things.

  5. thewikiman thewikiman

    I have to go against the prevailing wind here, I'm afraid…

    Although people have been fighting the term for a while (and with good reason), it does seem like 'Customer' is here, and here to stay. If we as Information Professionals refuse to embrace it then we're falling out of step with our customers. No point in trying to force our preferences onto them.

    Maybe it's more apparent in the UK, where, in academic libraries, our students have only recently become fee-paying customers in the traditional sense. They expect an exceptional standard of customer-service, and us being uncomfortable with the term 'customer' only gets in the way of delivering that…

  6. Iris Iris

    Hi thewikiman, I think you may be right that context matters. I think context even matters within the U.S.A. In fact, context matters within academic libraries in the U.S.A. At my small liberal arts college, neither our faculty nor our administrators would welcome the change toward thinking of students as customers. They're decidedly anti-customer as a concept for education, in fact. Luckily for me, this aligns with my own preferences, so I can continue using "patron" to my colleagues and "campus community" on most outward facing documents.

    I recognize that if I were to go to work in a public library or even a large university, the prevailing term may have been chosen for me and may not be to my taste.

    HistoryLibrarian, when I wrote for a publication that would be read by academic librarians in many types of libraries, that's exactly the term I settled on (after more angst and hand-wringing than it was probably worth, frankly).

  7. thewikiman thewikiman

    Okay I can see your point, one can only use the terminology appropriate for one's own library! But I do think in general, for the good of Information Professionals and particularly how we are perceived outside the profession, we all need to be more willing to accept uncomfortable notions like 'patron-is-customer'.

    We'll call that one a draw…

  8. Iris Iris

    I'm still not sure why "customer" is important "for the good of Information Professionals." Maybe this is just my own hang-up, but I don't see what we gain, what's new, in the "patron-is-customer" phrase. It feels more like people getting tired of a word and finding a near synonym. Maybe I'm missing something?

  9. thewikiman thewikiman

    I think the level of expectation from a patron is lower than that of a customer. Customers demand more and expect more than patrons – so if we're to overcome the traditional problems with the way in which we are perceived, we need to embrace the whole concept of customer-service more readily.

    Everything we do informs the way people outside the profession see us, and so us being averse to the term customer will only make people more likely to maintain their old associations as to what 'librarians' are like, rather than catching up with that we're now REALLY like.

Comments are closed.