The Name Game

When I began my MLIS education, I took a class that had to do with 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? Are they users? Are they customers? Are they students? What are they? We did not arrive at an answer that day. Now, a year later we were 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.

**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?

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. It doesn’t matter — the libraries are being used by their communities. 

One more question to think about. I’ll write about this in another post soon. What do we call people who don’t come to the (physical or virtual) library? 

:EDIT:
Other terms people mentioned when I asked on Twitter:
visitor
reader
borrower
client
participant
community member

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3 Responses to The Name Game

  1. lyndsey says:

    We had this same debate while working in social services. What do we call the people who we serve? Customers? Clients?

    I heard a new one the other day, Participants. I don't know how I feel about it yet but I think it has cross over potential.

    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.

    Just my two cents

  2. Heidi says:

    Thanks for your two cents! It makes sense :) Community member is a good description. There was a little discussion happening on Twitter about how we could use the word “client” because people actually do pay for the library's services through student fees and/or taxes. I still don't know if I like that word, though. What do we call people who don't come to the library at all — but pay student fees and taxes? They aren't clients if they don't use the library… are they?

  3. [...] originally posted this thought on my blog, but I began conversation with several readers through email and Twitter after it was posted. I [...]

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