A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Customers or Patrons? How You Look at Your Library’s Users Affects Customer Service

by Karen Pundsack on March 2, 2015

Patron. Customer. User. Borrower. Client. Member. Visitor. We have countless terms for the people who use our libraries. Which is most appropriate? Which is the most accurate? What are the implications of using library jargon to describe our audiences? What are the implications of using non-library terms? Why does it matter?

It has been more than ten years since Public Libraries last explored this topic. Back in 2004, Contributing Editor Hampton (Skip) Auld compiled a wide variety of opinions, each arguing for a different term: customers, clients, patrons, anything but warthogs.1 It is fair to say the debate continues with a wide range of terms in common usage across the country.

In the past decade, public library services have transformed dramatically. Wireless services, e-books, mobile access, and chat reference are now all part of the basic public library service suite. Public libraries are now, more than ever, a place to make community connections. The demographic makeup of our communities has become more diverse. Information has moved from a resource to a commodity. How we serve the people coming in our doors needs to be responsive and reflective of community needs.

In addition, the terminology we use can help us to establish an identifiable brand within our communities. In the recently released Aspen Institute report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, two action steps for library leaders align with the need to better define what we call our users and our public. Library leaders are called to (1) “define the scope of the library’s programs, services, and offerings around community priorities” and (2) “take proactive and sustained steps to brand the library as a platform for community learning and development.”2 It seems now is the time to align our vocabulary with our vision so our communities fully understand and appreciate our role.

An informal observation of library websites and policies shows that even leading public libraries are evenly split between the use of customer and patron in their formal taxonomy. The traditional term patron is used by New York Public Library (NYPL), Cuyahoga County (OH) Public Library, Seattle Public Library, and Multnomah County (OR) Library. The terms customer and user can be found in the policies of Denver Public Library, Topeka Shawnee (KS) County Library, Columbus (OH) Metropolitan Library, King County (WA) Library, and Anythink Libraries in Colorado.

Rather than limiting ourselves to one term, we should thoughtfully consider how the more commonly discussed and used terms reflect our target audiences and our goals to reach them. The words we use describe the services we have tailored for them. Our services reflect our community needs; our terminology should reflect how we view the people we serve and the goals we are aiming to achieve.

: a person who gives money and support to an artist, organization, etc.
: a person who buys the goods or uses the services of a business, library, etc.3

Like NYPL, Cuyahoga, Seattle, and Multnomah, the library system I work for, Great River Regional Library (MN), has fully adopted the term patron in an effort to demonstrate the priority of serving our public. Many of our job titles include the term. By incorporating the term patron into our policies, they also reflect this priority. We avoid the term customer in order to differentiate our services from the business world. By using library terminology, we can better demonstrate our unique value as a public service.

The term patron is library jargon, but is precise. Traditional library lingo has a place—it helps us describe the value of library as “library.” If, as public libraries, we do not embrace our own identity, who will? As shown in its dictionary definition, the term patron is associated with support of an organization and those who use libraries. What better way to describe those who come through our doors?

The benefit of using the term patron is that it a broad term and can describe various aspects of library use, from circulation to reading the newspaper to connecting to our wireless network. Based on the definition, a person could even be considered a patron without setting foot in the door if they are a library supporter. The term allows for broad generalities while being specific to library services.

Conversely, library thought leader Anthony Molaro has a different perspective on the value of this term: “A worldview that sees library users as patrons is one in which the patron (benefactor) is above libraries. According to this worldview, we should feel lucky that they support our work, and we are forever indebted to them. Some people call this term archaic, while others have no idea what a library patron even is. In the end, the perception is that the patron is above us.”4

According to Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the Howard County (MD) Library System (HCLS), the word patron has the potential to send the wrong message about public libraries—that they are institutions supported by philanthropy. Gross argues that a stronger alignment is with education and the terms student and customer are more likely to align public libraries with public schools in support and, ultimately, funding.5

The use of the term patron may limit our thinking about our relationship with our public. It may also limit our public’s perspective of how they relate to us.

: someone who buys goods or services from a business6

How we think about the people we serve can form the quality of our interactions. Gross proposes that the term customer carries the message that the public library is “a solid financial investment.” However, it is important to understand the implications of using a business term like customer in the public sphere.

In 1997, John Budd described using the term customer in a library context as “only a tactical renaming of professional values.” He went on to state that the trend was based on “the notion that the library has a product that is . . . readily definable . . . and that ‘customers’ know what they want and what the library has to offer.”7 While much has changed in libraries during the past eighteen years, the need to educate our public about the services we provide has not. Using business terminology to describe library users muddies the water. According to Budd, the “underlying assumption that the business model is the heart and soul of the correct way to provide service is, at best, not well supported by the evidence.”8

One of the best explanations of why public libraries should avoid aligning themselves with the business world comes from John Buschman, currently dean of Seton Hall University Library (South Orange, NJ). He stated, “The reason some services are in the public sector: their value is very real but difficult to measure and requires a different kind of judgment and management.”9 Library leaders need to articulate the value of library service beyond traditional metrics and should be careful of aligning terminology with the business world, where profit is a measure of success. As Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management, explained, “Many activities are in the public sector precisely because of measurement problems: If everything was so crystal clear and every benefit so easily attributable, those activities would have been in the private sector long ago.”10

Demand for a service does not necessarily mean that it has a place or a value in a public library. More recently, R. David Lankes advised against using this term in a library context. “Worse still, by adopting new services and offerings based solely on the demands of a community, we can easily fall into a ‘customer perspective’ where we scramble to meet the desires of a community regardless of how they align with core values such as openness, privacy, intellectual freedom, and such,” Lankes wrote.11

We are in a time when library leaders are being pushed to quantify and justify their existence and the need for public funding. This makes it even more important to not give in to the temptation to become a commercialized entity or to change our standards to align with the commercial world. The use of customer may be one step down this slippery slope. In the words of Buschman, “under customer-driven librarianship, democracy . . . is surely leaking away.”12

: a person or thing that uses something13

There is a movement within public libraries to apply user-experience principles from web design to physical library spaces. Wayfinding and creating customer journeys are laudable efforts and should be explored. At the same time, is the term user really the best description we have for those who enter our library spaces?

Even Aaron Schmidt, user experience columnist for Library Journal, hesitates to utilize this term to describe our service audience: “User is too impersonal and potentially problematic: users also are people who don’t give anything back in return, those who take drugs, and those who operate equipment.”14 It may be best to reserve this term for our digital experiences rather than apply it to our physical spaces. Schmidt, among others, makes a strong case for adding member to our user experience vocabulary.

Gross agrees that the term user does not further the goals of communicating public libraries’ value as educational institutions or as a sound financial investment of public dollars. She believes that the words we use to describe library services should consistently communicate that they are an “efficient and effective educational institution.”15 The term user does not achieve this.

: a person who attends a school, college, or university
: a person who studies something16

Gross makes a strong case regarding the importance of branding library services in order to tell a compelling story about their essential value. HCLS has aligned the vocabulary it uses to that of educational institutions. According to Gross, the term “‘student’ should be used at every opportunity, as it advances our goal of being viewed as education.”17

It is difficult to determine whether this change would be welcomed on a more universal level by our public. Would people from all age groups feel more compelled to use public libraries if they perceive themselves as students when they walk through our doors? For some, an educational term may seem less inviting, especially if their reasons for library use are more recreational or personal in nature. While aligning libraries with education can help our funders better understand why our services are essential, it may serve to alienate some members of the public that we serve.

: someone or something that belongs to or is a part of a group or an organization18

Perhaps there is room for a new term, like member? Schmidt argues, “This word has positive things going for it: member evokes a sense of belonging or even partial ownership. It indicates that someone is making an active choice. It implies an organization in which you can participate. Aren’t these things for which we should be aiming?”19 The idea of being a member implies a more dynamic role for our audience. In addition, it does not require use of physical space or physical materials in order for it to be an accurate description.

Lankes and Molaro both agree that people who use the library are more comfortable with this more welcoming term and it is a better description of who public libraries serve.

Lankes suggests libraries are more than public spaces, they are civic spaces. These civic spaces are “regulated on behalf of the public.”20 The idea suggests that the public co-owns our libraries and have a greater stake in them as a result. He credits library consultant Joan Frye Williams with quizzing people who use libraries with what they prefer to be called, coming up with the term member. While the term did not arise from a grand scientific study, it has a grassroots quality that has the potential to catch on.

“Just as we share in the success, responsibilities, and failures of our members, we must cede some of our own responsibilities to the members as well . . . so too must we allow our services to listen, that is, be influenced by our members. Doing so not only flows from our concepts, it builds trust and ultimately builds the relationship necessary for a new compact with our communities,” Lankes continued.

Molaro agrees with the possibilities the use of member presents. “This worldview fully demonstrates that library members are co-equals with library staff. Many people proudly join organizations as card-carrying members. They flash their cards, and take pride in their membership. This sociological phenomenon is just waiting for us to tap into,” he wrote.21 Clearly, an actively engaged library community is a necessary goal for public libraries to reach for. Community support and engagement are essential to healthy, thriving public libraries. The term member would help to further this effort.


The debate on what to call the people who use our libraries has gone on for more than a decade without a clear consensus. Going back to basic library
foundational principles for guidance, Ranganathan’s laws are:

Books are for use.
Every reader his [or her] book.
Every book its reader.
Save the time of the reader.
The library is a growing organism.

It is time to embrace our identities as public libraries. Our purpose stems from our “readers.” And we are truly a “growing organism.”

It is clear, years after introduction of the first computer and release of the first e-book, that public libraries are valued for more than their physical materials. We have come through the Great Recession. This difficult economic time helped to demonstrate the true value of public library service. We offered resources to our public when they needed them most. Whether it is books, computer access, professional assistance, programs, or meeting space, public libraries provide vital services. We should not compromise our foundational principles by borrowing terms from other industries in order to sell our essential value. This very act may undermine what makes public libraries unique and significant to our communities.

The terms we use to describe our strongest supporters, the people who use our services, are consequential to communicating their relationship with us. Without the people who walk through our doors and access our services, public libraries would be irrelevant. The public is essential to libraries just as libraries are essential to the public.

Using the term patron helps to demonstrate that their role in our libraries is unique, unduplicated, and invaluable. We should thoughtfully consider what we are communicating when using terms like customer, student, or user. While these terms have come into vogue, the term patron continues to resonate. Its timeless quality should be taken into consideration, especially as we move into a new age of redefining the role of public libraries.

At the same time, we need to embrace our unduplicated identity as public information service provider and community connector. Moving toward the term member may help us develop a more engaged public and transform the public library identity in the twenty-first century to a more active community environment. It has the potential “to brand the library as a platform for community learning and development”22 by inviting our supporters to actively belong to our libraries.


  1. Hampton (Skip) Auld, ed. “Patrons, Customers, Users, Clients: Who Are They and What Difference Does It Make What We Call Them?” Public Libraries 43 no. 2 (Mar./Apr. 2004): 81-87.
  2. Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries (Wash., DC: Aspen Institute, Oct. 2014), accessed Jan. 27, 2015.
  3. Merriam Webster Online, s.v. “patron,” accessed Nov. 11, 2014.
  4. Anthony Molaro, “Just Whom Do We Serve?—Patrons? Users? Clients? The Name Foreshadows the Interaction,” American Libraries blog, Mar. 28, 2012, accessed Jan. 30, 2015.
  5. Valerie J. Gross, Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage (Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2013), 37-38.
  6. Merriam Webster Online, s.v. “customer,” accessed Nov. 11, 2014.
  7. John M. Budd, “A Critique of Customer and Commodity,” College & Research Libraries 58, no. 4 (July 1997): 311.
  8. John E. Buschman, “On Customer-Driven Librarianship,” Dismantling the Public Sphere (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003), 117.
  9. Ibid., 121.
  10. Henry Mintzberg, “Managing Government, Governing Management,” Harvard Business Review 74, no. 3 (May 1996), accessed Feb. 12, 2015.
  11. R. David Lankes, “An Assured Path to Irrelevance or An Outright Impeachment of Our Basic Principles,” blog post, Dec. 1, 2014, accessed Jan. 30, 2015.
  12. Bushchman, “On Customer-Driven Librarianship,” 123.
  13. Merriam Webster Online, s.v. “user,” accessed Nov. 11, 2014.
  14. Aaron Schmidt, “Membership Has Its Benefits,” Library Journal (Apr. 9, 2012): 22.
  15. Gross. “Transforming Our Image,” 38.
  16. Merriam Webster Online, s.v. “student,” accessed Nov. 11, 2014.
  17. Gross. “Transforming Our Image,” 38.
  18. Merriam Webster Online, s.v. “member,” accessed Nov. 11, 2014.
  19. Schmidt, “Membership Has Its Benefits,” 22.
  20. R. David Lankes, Atlas of New Librarianship (Cambridge, MA: MIT Pr.; Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries, 2011), 65.
  21. Molaro, “Just Whom Do We Serve?”
  22. Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries (Wash., DC: Aspen Institute, Oct. 2014), 50, accessed Jan. 27, 2015.

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