Steven Bell wonders what we should call the people who use our libraries. “User” is degrading, says Don Norman in his essay “Words Matter”. “People”, as Bell points out, just sounds odd in a lot of contexts (although my library’s user database is called people!). It is also not specific enough; we design libraries and services for people who visit the library or use our services, or those who might potentially do so, but not for people in general.
As customer service becomes more and more important in non-retail settings, I have a feeling we are not the only profession struggling with what to call the people we serve. I did a quick PubMed search and came across an abstract for Patient, consumer, client, or customer: what do people want to be called? (Health Expectations, December 2005). The conclusion? “Care recipients” felt that alternatives like customer, client, and consumer imply a market relationship that they find objectionable. They prefer to be called patients.
I wonder if libraries should consider a return to patrons. Despite our desire to be like Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or some other commercial enterprise (certainly a worthy desire if it improves the library), libraries are not commercial enterprises, and I don’t think most people expect to be treated the same way at Barnes & Noble as they do at a library.