I was recently asked to more precisely justify my use of the terms “client” and “patron” in my discussion of face-to-face reference services at the public library. Why not “customer” or “user” or “member” instead? Why use more than one term? Who should decide the term to be used in a research study – the library and the library personnel being studied, the members of the public who use the library, the researcher or even possibly, the “correct” term has already been established in the the research literature through a selection of expert works on various aspects of library work.
Matthews (2004) defines each of these terms from his perspective. I take issue with some of the emphasis he assigns. For example, he suggests that the use of the term “customer” indicates a “proactive” approach, whereas the use of the term “client” indicates a more one-to-one professional-personal approach. Ok, but are these exclusive? And more importantly, what about the connotations associated with these terms, what about the spillover meanings that we are also adopting when we transport terms from one intellectual or practice world to another.
So I looked up in Library Literature to see when and how often the terms “customer” and “client” were used with the term “public library” or “public libraries”. Customer is clearly the preferred term and has been since at least 1969, with the most frequent use of the term during the past 10 years. Client is not a preferred term at all -and appears roughly once for every 4 times the word customer appears. I find the word “customer” to be simply far too loaded with meanings and connotations that are not necessarily present, but which over time we often come to assume are present. Customer suggests a one-way interaction where “something” is being purchased or is being delivered to the individual and the customer’s participation in co-constructing the particular object of interest is, immediately, very limited. Maybe “client” is just as loaded as a term implying that libraries offer completely individualized services for each citizen. In my view, however, in my very particular use in face-to-face interactions at the reference desk, client is far more accurate. “Patron” might also be appropriate, as might be “user”. (The word “user” never sounds very healthy somehow.)
Language is political, it is ideological and every day in libraries and in our research we participate in this formation of ideology. How we address our citizens, our members of the public, our readers, our viewers, our listeners, our members, our library patrons or clients or customers, is one small part of how we form and define these very important relationships. If we want our library patrons to actively participate in building the library services they want to use, which is a form of sociality, we need to address this issue of naming. Names matter and in some radical view, consistency does NOT matter.