The Name Game

20/01/2011 § 19 Comments

{I originally posted this thought on my blog, but I began conversation with several readers through email and Twitter after it was posted. I hope that you’ll continue to share your thoughts by commenting, too.}

When I began my MLIS education, I took a class about Information Behavior. The behavior people use when interacting with information or the lackthereof. It could have been a fascinating class had we all not suffered from severe information overload and an instructor lacking skills to instruct. Ask if you want more details.

On the first day, we talked about what to call those people that go into the library. Are they patrons? Users? Customers? Students? What are they? We did not arrive at an answer that day. Now, a year later I was introduced to a new term: civilians. Are they civilians? I still don’t know…

Patrons — this word seems old-fashioned to me. It has good intentions — as patron is defined as someone who is supporting an institution, but that term just doesn’t sound right when it comes out of my mouth.


Users — this sounds like I’m describing someone who uses drugs, but it is the word I use most often because the people who walk into the library or log into the library web site are indeed USING it.
Customers — well, we aren’t really selling anything at a library, so the word ‘customer’ (someone who buys goods and services) is kind of off-putting.
Students — yes, everyone is a student of life. However, overuse of the term may lead to confusion — and for libraries that have homework help for students (elementary, middle or high school), it could be even more complex.
Civilians — I associate this word with someone who is not in the military. When I looked it up, I found another definition: “anyone regarded by members of a profession, interest group, society, etc., as not belonging; nonprofessional; outsider” from Dictionary.com. I would hope that libraries do not consider the people who USE them to be not belonging or outsiders. That term just seems to describe the opposite of how libraries serve their communities.

Other terms people mentioned on Twitter:
visitor, reader, borrower, client, participant, community member

And, what about the people who access the library without going through the doors? They use the web site and download e-books or audio books and IM chat with the librarians. What are they called? I call them users. Should they be called something else? One more question to think about: What do we call people who don’t come to the (physical or virtual) library?

So, I usually say user to describe someone who is using the library. It seems most appropriate, and if people give me an uncomfortable look (as in — the did you call someone a “user”?! look), I restate it by saying “library-user” to make my point clear. Because I do believe that anyone who enters the library (physically or virtually) is USING it. Some people spend more time actively searching and gathering the information they need. Others are more passive and pick up a book being held for them.

One of my classmates, Lyndsey (@dearlyndsey) said, “I like words that are active… user also falls into this. Because I work at an academic library I just use the word students. If I worked in a public library I think I would just describe everyone as a community member. It just seems less weird to me.”

Libraries are now being used by their communities more than ever. If we don’t know what to call the people who use the libraries, how are we going to understand their needs and reach them the best way we can?

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§ 19 Responses to The Name Game

  • Listen to R. David Lankes’ stuff (that’s linked to one talk where he discusses users vs customers vs patrons vs members term; many others of his talks do the same). He calls them members — as does Joan Frye Williams. They’re both slowly convincing me through their talks that they are members.

  • Melissa says:

    My first day of library school we discussed this topic. I tend to go back and forth between users and patrons, but there are some that have very strong opinions about what to call those that visit the library.

  • Heather – thanks for the resource. I agree that often ‘members’ makes sense since they are in some way invested in the institution as much as the librarians.

    Melissa – Most often I say ‘users’ simply because I am coming from the web side of things. I wonder if over the next few years our terminology will lean toward terms associated with the technology that is becoming more a part of the LIS world. Look for a post in the future on the topic “Is Librarianship Becoming a Technology Profession?”

    Thanks for the comments!

  • Diana Weaver says:

    I think patrons defines the relationship best. We serve those who support us. The tools are changing, but the mission remains the same.

    • Hi Diana, That’s a great point! Thank you for sharing it. In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter what we call them as long as we are able to serve them. Thanks again for your comment.

  • I haven’t really had this conversation in school yet. Patron is my personal favorite. I think that if we except that language has meaning and effects how we construct perceptions then there are 3 clear reasons as too why librarians and library administrators should be using it.

    First, patron(s) is a word that contains minimal creep from the capitalist world. It’s a word that denotes that the people who come into the libraries are there to be served. Because of its unique situation in our culture it also provides context which recognizes that those services might be intangible in any measurable way. Further, that even where those services are measurable no dollar amount can be put on them. The translation of business style rhetoric into public services is devastating; it forces public goods to be justified on an entirely different playing field. When do we ask our fortune 500 companies what public good are they providing? Somethings exist and need be protected because they have intrinsic worth and once we put them into a category where they are able to be perceived in market terms they are greatly deminished. At that point there is an acknowledgment tacitly or explicitly that there is now a price associated with it. We should never put a price tag on ourselves, our patrons, or our services.

    Patrons also fits what it is we do in the library, offer a myriad of services. What do you call the 80 year old James Patterson junky? Patron. What do you call the soccer mom who comes in for story hour and browses magizines? Patron. What do you call the student who uses online database collections? Patron. What term is used for the inmate who calls from jail to gain access to legal resources at a university law library? Patron. It’s a universal term that fits anyone who accesses our resources, from Zoomba classes to Lexis-Nexis searches. Why have specific terms for each library? Why mislabel or misrepresent an activity? Libraries exist not just for computer classes or James Patterson best sellers, we have a unique role. We are here not only to provide information, but to preserve it so it can be used in the future. I would submit to you that if a library stood patron-less for 1000 years, and then someone from Mars used its databases for some sort of trivial fact check, that person would be a patron. Perhaps, the patron is the best way of putting it. The 1000 years of solitude bequeathed to the library and its staff would have been worth it, that library would have fulfilled its purpose. That’s not to say that we should aim for that level of traffic, but that we have to view our existence as a multifaceted nexus of information. Patron is a word that serves as prism through which all facets can be seen and acknowledged. We haven’t even gotten into the sticky situation of how people will use our services for different purposes at different times.

    Finally, I think there is something quaint about the term. Yes, it’s historical, dusty, and perhaps even old. However, when we term the people who come through our doors patron, we evoke a powerful talisman that connects us from our present transitional state, to our past. Every time we say it we invoke our responsibility and privilege to serve our communities. We acknowledge our institutional roles. That’s a powerful thing. It is nothing less than a symbolic reaffirmation of community value, our traditions, and our role. As I said above, the term is a prism; we can use it to see ourselves as well as our clients. It’s a term that when spoken or written should, must inspire us to recommit ourselves to the profession, our communities, and ourselves. I don’t know if any of the other terms can come close, even with the passage of time.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Micah Vandegrift, Zack . Zack said: In which I write an extensive argument for the use of "patron" in the comments section of someone else's blog. http://tiny.cc/ttra8 #libsci [...]

  • It’s interesting how the tags and titles we ascribe to people and products can prove significant, particularly in an American culture that so values labels. Personally, I’ve always liked the term “member” for library use. People want to feel involved in things. They want to know they are part of a group. If a library wants to be embraced by its community and foster a deeper sense of connectivity, it can use a term like “member” to help users understand they are part of the library’s community.

    • Oh! I really like the word “member” when you describe it that way. I’m a HUGE supporter of making the people who use and support the library know and understand that they are part of the community.

  • [...] is a response to Heidi’s earlier post, The Name Game. As always, we welcome your perspective in the comments and in future post [...]

  • [...] The Name Game – Heidi Kittleson [...]

  • [...] on this here blog in the past few months, including: Core Skills, Death of Documents, Ethics, Members not Patrons or Users, and Social Networking. [His titles, our links] The topics introduced in the text/site are, in my [...]

  • Anonymous says:

    I think that what we call library users and non-users should be considered in connection with what Stewart and Moran introduce about the change factor. The library’s constant need for change stems from the fact that it now competes with many other high speed mass media resources, but at the core of this situation is a larger truth. The library now exists in a time where information is the age, the dominant commodity. There is so much at stake for people as students, consumers, voters, medical patients, or any role one might have when it comes to information because more than ever before information is power. It is the difference between true knowledge or just opinion, making decisions for your own self interest or being persuaded to act in the interest of an entity that does not necessarily support your well being and may even be harmful.

    In the information age we should refer to library users as information seekers. Even if they are only coming to check out movies or bring their children to story time, each visitor to the library should be seen as weary warriors who have just come in from a great battle that is taking place in their minds. Yes this is quite dramatic, but by regarding each visitor as someone in need of information we can begin to focus not only on the information they have come to ask for, but also the information they do not even realize that they need yet. This stance promotes a culture of information literacy, a function of the library industry that I believe is integral to it maintaining its relevance in this day and age.

    So what should we call those not visiting the library? Alternatively served information seekers. This is not just a label or nominal title I came up with. It is not simply an opposite, like saying users and non users. “Alternatively served” speaks to the competition, the battles so to speak, that are being waged to win control over minds. Of all information resources today, the library industry is the one that should and I believe does, have the mind’s best interest as its mission. I think we should worry less about the business of information and focus on the public service of information resources. To call a library visitor a patron or a user is antiquated because there are less and less people patronizing and using libraries even though the population of information seekers in the world continues to grow. It is important that we recognize our unique value to them as the only real benevolent information resource out there. With this value recognized the patronage will follow, but if the library does not know itself in this value the public will never see it either. That is why I think we need to drop the use of “patron” and “user” so that we can see every person as an information seeker or alternatively (unfortunately) served information seeker and begin to conceptualize how library and information centers can serve the public in today’s information environment.

  • [...] – technological, ideological, practical, professional, and everything in between. We have engaged, provoked, challenged and argued. My only hope is that will continue to be the goal of this blog [...]

  • [...] Hack Library School:  The Name Game  (2011)  http://hacklibschool.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/the-name-game/ [...]

  • […] Hack Library School:  The Name Game  (2011)  http://hacklibschool.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/the-name-game/ […]

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