By Any Other Name, They're Still Our Customers

By Sandy, John H. | American Libraries, August 1997 | Go to article overview

By Any Other Name, They're Still Our Customers


Sandy, John H., American Libraries


IS IT TIME TO STOP PATRONIZING THE PUBLIC AND START WAITING ON CUSTOMERS?

What do libraries, restaurants, and theaters have in common? Customers. Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines the term customer as "one that patronizes or uses services (as of a library, restaurant, or theater)." For many librarians, finding their mostly fee-free workplaces equated with such pay-as-you-go concerns just doesn't seem right. But wait - there is a common ingredient: Service.

All around the country, librarians are coupling library service with the use of the term customer, even while their colleagues, many in major leadership positions, are content with older names, such as user, patron, and client. Thus, the challenge unfolds: Are we, as a profession, ready to serve customers, as does the business world, by way of promoting a new kind of library service for the 21st century?

Most librarians may think that the name they employ to describe the people they assist is unimportant; what really matters is the service they provide. Indeed, among many practitioners, such a discussion can barely get a hearing, and there's certainly no agreement on a "best" name. Nevertheless, I believe that the name we use to describe the individuals we serve affects how well we do our jobs.

At the core of the "name game," librarians have to decide what it is that we really do - not unlike reinventing a library's mission statement. For instance, if we just practice collection development, then acquire away. However, if our focus is on customer service, it's time to devote more attention and energy to taking care of the people using the materials we offer.

It's well known how good the reputation of BMW autos is. Yet, BMW manufacturers pay just as much attention to serving "Beamer" buyers as they do to selling cars. This is not to say that either books or BMWs should be ignored per se - only that the product and the customers get equal treatment.

Surely no librarian can be faulted for not embracing the term customer. The simple truth is that the idea of customer service, with its focus on the individual, isn't well understood by librarians. Christopher Millson-Martula and Vanaja Menon's "Customer Expectations: Concepts and Reality for Academic Library Services" (College and Research Libraries, p. 33-47), only appeared as recently as January 1995.

But the shock of calling people customers probably would fade sooner than twilight if librarians internalized the term's association with individual needs, expectations, and satisfaction. And there's another thing for us to think about: In customer service, the spotlight is on individual behavior, feedback, and communication. It sounds like good library business.

Finding a fit

The word library workers use to describe the people they serve seems to vary according to the workers' preference, and sometimes the particular situation or setting. A conservative lot, we librarians are not quick to embrace a new name.

The terms reader ("one that reads" or "one that applies himself to reading") and user (merely "one that uses") have been around a long time, since at least 1900. The term patron ("a steady or regular client, as one who uses the services of a library") has been in our jargon since about the mid-century and is highly popular today. Client ("a person who engages the professional advice or services of another") entered library literature in the 1950s, and customer first appeared in the professional canon in 1990. (In titles indexed since 1989, client or customer appears 131 times; patron occurs in 284 works.)

Fortunately, the names used to describe people in libraries reflect a tradition of service. There have been lots of choices and all seemed to fit, at least somewhat. But, over time, our views about service have changed. Who among us today prefers the term reader? Few indeed; in a national mail survey I conducted this January of the name preferences of 150 public, academic, and special librarians, no one chose reader. …

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