BackTalk: Patron or Customer (and Why)?

By Brent Wagner

Before graduating from Simmons College, Boston, in 1997, I worked in the Iowa State Archives. I can't recall ever hearing the term customer applied to a library user in Iowa or Massachusetts, but this changed when I started working for Denver Public Library (DPL) in 2000. And now, when visiting other libraries or scanning professional literature, the “customer” phenomenon proves difficult to ignore.

Why are an increasing number of libraries and librarians in the library field jumping on this Barnes & Noble–like bandwagon? We haven't the fiscal support to compete with businesses, and why would we want to? We do so much more than dole out information and find DVDs. We manage meeting rooms, conduct tax preparation seminars and ESL classes, help transients, and provide readers' advisory. Libraries are the fulcrums of communities. In short, the library is more than a business, and patrons are more than mere customers.

Dirty word?

I'm not here to lament the glorious days of yore, but, certainly no veteran library employee would deny that the profession is changing. Personally, however, it bothers me to hear highly educated librarians use the word customer ad nauseam. To me, customer tacitly embraces a business model. One could argue it even embodies a dumbing-down mentality. The term customer surrenders stricter standards and suggests that libraries now must “give 'em what they want,” no matter what they want, even though the customer, at least our customer, is not always right.

I acknowledge that libraries need to learn how to use their dwindling money prudently, not unlike successful companies. But using the term customer just screams business. Ironically, I've noticed that many businesses have started to shift their vernacular from customer to patron. For example, both Ruth's Chris, the popular upscale steakhouse chain, and Colorado's premiere shopping center, the Cherry Creek Mall, now advertise valet parking “for patrons.” The magnanimous bartenders staffing my favorite watering hole refer to me as a “patron.”

That which we call a rose

At DPL, I like to give job applicants 24 hours to answer one of three essay questions. Usually, it's something pretty standard, along the lines of, “What did you learn from your worst day ever at work?” But I'm always eager to read the essays of those who choose to tackle this topic: “Patron or Customer (and Why)?”

One candidate was willing to fall on her sword for the term patron. A colleague of mine at DPL beat me to the punch and hired her. During a subsequent telephone call in which we helped each other with a reference question, this new hire uttered the anathematic term customer to me. She knew I was shocked. The silence was palpable. We both obtained our degrees from Simmons, but the “customer” culture at DPL had successfully been inculcated in just a matter of days.

Another applicant pointed out that “a patron saint beats a tough customer any day of the week.” She then backed down a bit and stated it's all right to use the terms interchangeably. Another quasi–fence sitter quoted Shakespeare: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

One applicant conducted an impressive informal questionnaire of DPL staff at different locations and discovered that all of those surveyed preferred “customer,” yet, when pressed, not one could really explain why.

Other interesting points applicants discussed: “the term patron implies that the individual will meet our needs; customer allows us to meet theirs.” One noted that patron means “to patronize, which, therefore, means to visit repeatedly,” whereas “a customer could be a one-time visitor.” Another wrote one of the best essays that I've read on the topic, positing that librarians should refer to users as “clients.”

Hot topic?

In 1980, Ann Landers generated 15,000 letters when she asked her readers whether they preferred toilet paper rolls to hang down or to cascade over the top. Similarly, when I pose the seemingly innocuous “patron or customer” question to colleagues and librarian job applicants, a flurry of often vehement responses follow. What does it really matter? I'll admit that in both cases the substance of the question seems relatively unimportant. The volume of response, however, suggests otherwise.

In my opinion, even if our users want to “rent” instead of “borrow” DVDs, the hoi polloi pay money for the library to run. Ergo, plain and simple, they're “patrons.” Is the term patron a bit conservative? Perhaps. But to me it also connotes a deep respect. Nevertheless, more and more libraries still lean toward using customer. I've heard some administrators have actually mandated their staff to say “customer” in addition to replacing “patron” on signage and official library literature. The irony, of course, is that so many library administrators are eager to embrace a business paradigm but still fail to deliver the efficiency such rhetoric suggests.

Brent Wagner is Senior Librarian, Ross -Cherry Creek Branch, Denver Public Library.

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