Thursday, December 14, 2023

Library Patrons, Not Customers: Upholding the Essence of Public Libraries

Libraries have a vital role in promoting personal and community growth by facilitating learning. However, if people who come to the library are seen as customers and treated accordingly, this could compromise the fundamental values of libraries.

The words used by librarians to describe their role in the community and their relationship with their users have a big impact on how the public sees and uses library services. The terms "patron" and "customer" each have their own meanings and implications that shape the library's identity and the benefits it provides. Therefore, it's important to choose the right words to ensure that the library's uniqueness and services are viewed positively by the public.

ConnotationImplies support and patronage.Suggest a commercial transaction.
Associated with the arts and civic engagement.Linked to consumerism and business models.
Implication for LibrariesEmphasizes the library as a public service and educational institution.Focuses on service and user satisfaction, similar to a business.
It aligns with the traditional values of libraries, like intellectual freedom, privacy, and open access.It can imply a need to justify public funding through service metrics.
Relationship with UsersSuggests a benefactor or supporter role, indicating a deeper engagement with the library.Indicates a provider-consumer relationship, potentially more transactional.
Community RoleHighlights the social and communal role of libraries.This could imply a shift towards a more commercialized approach to library services.
PerceptionViewed as more traditional and aligned with the historical role of libraries.This might be seen as modernizing the approach to library services, but it risks commercializing the essence of public libraries.

Patron versus Customer

The use of corporate language in libraries can have both positive and negative effects. While certain terms, including "Data Analytics," "Return on Investment (ROI)," and "Content Management," can be useful in measuring library usage, it is important to remember that they do not change the identity of library users.

In the past, "patron" was a common term used to describe those who use a library. However, this term implies that libraries are public institutions that offer valuable services that cannot be measured in commercial terms since they do not operate for profit. In contrast, "customer" suggests that libraries operate similarly to businesses, prioritizing consumer satisfaction over their traditional role as centers for learning, culture, and civic engagement.

Adopting a customer-centric approach impacts the internal culture of libraries, with an emphasis on customer service skills over traditional librarian skills like collection development and information literacy education. This shift could lead to training and professional development that is more business-oriented. 

Libraries are adopting a business model approach, where economic efficiency is given more importance than the educational and social value that libraries provide. However, this shift can result in deprofessionalization, which is a cost-cutting measure. This involves replacing highly educated and skilled professional librarians with less qualified individuals. As a result, full-time professional library positions are often replaced with part-time, nonprofessional roles, which fundamentally change the nature of library work.

Moving towards a more corporate model could also challenge the fundamental values of librarianship, such as intellectual freedom and unbiased access to information. There are concerns about advertising and sponsorships moving libraries away from their traditional role as neutral providers of information. 

To avoid these potential negative effects, libraries must maintain their traditional values and prioritize community building, intellectual freedom, and equitable access to information.

Further Reading

Public Libraries Online. (n.d.). Customers or Patrons? How You Look at Your Library's Users Affects Customer Service. Retrieved from

Abstract: This article discusses the implications of referring to library users as either "customers" or "patrons"" It emphasizes the value of library services beyond traditional metrics and explores how the terminology used can reflect and shape the library's role in the community.

American Libraries Magazine. (n.d.). Just Whom Do We Serve? Retrieved from

Abstract: This resource provides insights into how the terms "users," "members," "students," and "patrons" are used in library contexts. It also discusses the potential impact of these terms on the perception and engagement of library users and how they align with the mission and values of libraries.

Wayword Radio. (n.d.). Patron vs. Customer – A Way with Words. Retrieved from

Abstract: This podcast episode from Wayword Radio delves into the debate between using "patron" versus "customer" in the context of libraries. It offers perspectives on how these terms influence the relationship between libraries and their users and reflects on historical and contemporary usage.

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Library Patrons, Not Customers: Upholding the Essence of Public Libraries

Libraries have a vital role in promoting personal and community growth by facilitating learning. However, if people who come to the library ...