Monday, November 19, 2007

Patron vs. Customer

This blog's title reminds me of that movie Alien vs. Predator, or maybe something from MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch. Unfortunately, neither one of those things are what I'm going to ramble about today, but I will try and make this as interesting as possible.

The driving force of any library is its users. An institution exists solely to serve and educate the people who avail themselves of it. This is a known fact in the library world. So, why do information professionals have such difficulty agreeing on what to call the people who make use of library services? Should they be patrons or customers? In order to discern whether library users should be referred to as patrons or customers, we turn to the always helpful for the precise definitions of the word customer and the word patron.

Customer- A person who purchases goods or services from one another; buyer; patron.

Ah-ha, the word "purchase" is included in the definition. This clearly implies a monetary exchange. I know I feel a twinge of sadness when someone asks me how much it costs to get a library card. The sadness is quickly replaced by a warm fuzzy feeling when I get to tell the person that "Library cards are FREE!" We do not want anyone thinking library services cost anything, right? So, why would we call them "customers," when clearly a "customer" is a "buyer." But wait, also says that patron and customer are synonymous. This will be harder than I thought.

Patron- 1.) a person who is a customer, client, or paying guest, especially a regular one, of a store, hotel, or the like.

Oh dear, this definition doesn't only imply monetary exchage, it explicitly says "paying guest." In addition, a library is in no way analogous to a "store" or a "hotel." Maybe patron isn't the way to go after all. There are more definitions to look at before we conclude, though.

2.) a person who supports with money, gifts, efforts, or endorsements and artist, writer, museum, cause, charity, special event, or the like.

By this definition, library users would not be patrons at all, but Friends of the Library members and volunteers would be. Also, library donors would be patrons, but we certainly don't want to imply that a donation is required to use the library.

3.) a person whose support or protection is solicited or acknowledged by the dedication of a book or other work.

That definition is no help at all in this case.

When I began to write this, I was convinced that patron was the correct way to refer to those who use library services for the simple reason that it did not insinuate that any charges applied to the use of the library. However, now I am pretty sure that neither one is very good for the reasons previously stated. I am still partial to patron, though, because I think it sounds more old-fashioned and just plain nicer than customer. Perhaps "user" would be the best way to go, though, since it is neutral. The only thing I am still sure of is that the library exists for the people who use it, no matter how we refer to them.

1 comment:

librarycomputerguy said...

I have always prefered patron over customer because libraries are NOT retail, but I had no idea of the problems with that term. Thanks!