Libraries have been debating what to call the people who use them for some time now — patrons? customers? users? See, for example, my post on retail reference from 2006.
Now, it appears the customer model is being advocated in higher education. In a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bill Sams of Ohio University argues that students should behave more like customers, demanding value for their tuition dollars.
Students give little thought to paying $2,000 each to sleep through courses for which they are forced to sit for hours at a time in hard seats in auditoriums jammed with other students. Customers would instead download free podcasts from iTunes U and—curled up in their own warm beds with their iPods and earbuds—listen comfortably as the same material was presented by top faculty members from MIT, Harvard, or Stanford.
Really? The classroom experience is worthless and we’d get better value from a recorded lecture?
A second letter by Michael Armstrong offers a rebuttal:
A good student is not someone to whom something is done (teaching), but rather someone who does something for themselves (learning).
I’m beginning to think there is a reason we developed these specific terms (library, patron, teacher, student). Sure, “customer” implies a certain level of power and input. A customer can take his money elsewhere if he is not happy. However, a business is only invested in a customer as long as that customer is paying. Don’t we expect a more multidimensional relationship between a teacher and student, librarian and patron, or doctor and patient?
I recently wrote a blog post for the SLA Social Science Division about “loyalty strategist” James Kane. His ideas about the relationships between organizations and the people they serve are relevant to this discussion — especially the idea that customer satisfaction is only a base from which to build loyalty.