Who do Canadian public libraries serve?

Within my larger sabbatical project I have had a little more time to think about, and then do some digging around, on various aspects of Canada’s contemporary public libraries. I have several threads in progress all of which relate, one way or the other, to the public library as a government service. A huge topic, indeed, about which I hope you will hear more from me, in coming months.

While I can’t tell you precisely what prompted this latest exercise (the subject of this post), I can say this item has regularly niggled away at me, throughout my years as public library practitioner and now library academic.

What do we call the people public libraries have been delegated to serve?

What are the primary nouns being used by these libraries to refer to the people who access their services?

To answer these questions, I undertook a small exercise as follows. I reviewed all of the CULC member websites (45 in total). As much as possible I looked at these types of pages and documents or their closest equivalents, in this order, starting often with the About The Library section: a) mission, vision, values; b) most recent strategic plans; c) most recent annual reports; d) other major publications e.g., community consultation, newsletters, etc.; e) several common-to-all-libraries policies à code of conduct and public internet access or computer use. I made note of the primary collective and singular nouns used to reference the people who use and don’t use their libraries, the people who are referenced as their library’s community, the people who are on the other side of their library’s services. I was not trying to achieve the highest degree of certainty, but wanted to “get an idea” of what the dominant trends are, and I did.

Like you, I know there can often be inconsistencies in documentation and publications, including what goes up on websites for a host of reasons. I took the most recent commonly used terms as far as I could discern them, across only these categories of documents and/or web pages, in the belief that these documents represent the library’s highest level perspective on their communities and their services. Some of the conduct, and computer policies are older, and I did not take that into account in any systematic way. This table summarizes my take on the preferred terms used (one term per category for each library system) in each of governance and planning, and these library policies.

Governance + Planning # of libraries’ preferred term Conduct + Computer Use Policies # of libraries’ preferred term
Customer 24 Customer 19
Patron 10 User 16
Member 4 Patron 6
Clientèle1 3 Member 2
User 3 Client 2
Canadians2 1

1Three Québec library systems (BaNQ, Montréal, Gatineau) all prefer ‘clientèle’ and ‘usager’, with occasional reference to ‘membre’.

2Library and Archives Canada has a unique role and institutional status among Canadian libraries, different from provincially legislated public libraries. LAC public service policies consulted universally refer to ‘clients’ in both English and French.

Interesting-to-me observations:

  • Unsurprising to find that ‘customer’ tops the list in both cases. More on that later.
  • The word ‘customer’ is also often used an adjective (e.g., ‘customer service’ or ‘customer driven’) even if an individual library’s preferred noun is not necessarily ‘customers’.
  • There was one instance of ‘non-customers’ to refer to individuals who do not use the library.
  • According to the Government of Québec, ‘clientèle’ suggests both commercial and non-commercial uses. Here is their authoritative statement on this term.
  • Most strategic planning documents reference the ‘community’ as a whole, or ‘residents’ or ‘members of the public’ or in French ‘nos publics’ rather than individuals.
  • It almost seems as if some libraries are deliberately trying to avoid having to use any single noun to reference individuals in their high level strategy documents.
  • ‘Patron’ is clearly still in use, though less frequently than in the past. I noted several older policies that referenced ‘patrons’ whereas the same library’s more current documentation referenced ‘customers’. A transition in progress for several libraries.
  • Unsurprisingly, many computer use policies reference ‘users’; this reference precisely describes the type of relationship being characterized. People ‘use’ computers in libraries. I gave greater weight to a library’s code of conduct policy than to their computer use policy for this reason.
  • Surprises:
    • Going against the trend, one of Canada’s largest public libraries, the NB Provincial library system, and two smaller urban libraries, do NOT use the term ‘customer’. Instead they clearly prefer ‘patron’ and not in simply an historical sense. These same library systems use the term ‘patron-centred’ to characterize services. Hurrah.
    • A handful of library systems use the term ‘members’ in their policies to refer to people using their services. I find this an interesting departure from the norm.
    • The Regina Public Library’s latest strategic plan actually includes definitions of their most important types of relationships (page 6). I like the distinctions drawn between customers and citizens, all as subsets of community.
    • The Toronto Public Library clearly prefers ‘customer’ to reference service relationships planned and outlined in their latest strategic plan. In contrast, however, the Library’s Code of Conduct policy equally clearly makes NO reference to ‘customers’ referring instead to ‘members of the public’. And the previous strategic plan covering the same period the Code of Conduct was approved, also references ‘customers.’ Hmmm. What does that mean? There’s a relational difference being teased out here? Or they just missed this.

And … so what? My discussion.

My firm thesis is that these terms really, really matter. I hope, in this current news and media climate, I don’t need to justify why the language our public institutions use, matters so much. They suggest intention and they describe types of relationships a Library has with its community members. They are carefully chosen terms and we should all be paying attention to the relationships they define, restrict, intend, characterize, allow, regulate, evoke, and so on. They shape how community members understand their relationship with their public library, they shape community members’ expectations of service, they evoke, even if not in a legal way, the public’s view of the Library’s accountability to them. They express meaning both in the short term, and they carry more and more meaning, the longer they endure. Just think for a moment about what the phrase ‘public library’ has meant, and continues to evoke for le grand public.

Finally, it should surprise no reader that if I were ever granted 60 seconds of extraordinary public library super-power, the term ‘customer’ would be banished with one wave of my wand, never to appear in public library policies and governance documents, and replace it with ‘member’ (until a more complete word is invented). The word ‘customer’ denotes commerce, exchange of good and services in a financial context. Whereas the word ‘member’ in this context denotes belonging to a social institution or collective. The OED has a lot to say about these words their “senses” or “meanings” are presented genealogically, so readers can see how the various connotations and relationships have evolved. I include relevant excerpts below.


Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 4.57.18 PM<Member> 

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 4.56.19 PM


This exercise was instructive to me in many ways. And yes I do want to conclude, even if you’ve heard it all before, with my assertion that a ‘customer’ relationship is very, very different from a ‘member’ relationship, if we pay attention to these two words. Why have so many libraries so readily moved to this commercial characterization of their relationships with their community members? Why are other libraries choosing other less commercially loaded terms? At the very least, I am delighted to say with at least this much evidence on the table, that this tiny patch of discursive Canadian public library space remains definitively non-authoritative, and non-standard. Ah-hah!

















5 thoughts on “Who do Canadian public libraries serve?

  1. In theory, I agree with everything you’re saying. But my actual experience working in a public library has been different. The staff I’ve encountered who use the term “patrons” tend to be more old-school and embody the gatekeeper mentality that sometimes gives libraries a reputation for bureaucratic rigidity. I don’t like the term “customers,” but (at least where I work) it seems to be connected to efforts to change the culture and provide friendlier, more empathetic service.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I know what you mean. Patron has its roots in mechanics institutes and in ‘sponsors’ of libraries. However, it has endured for decades as meaningful to many. And clearly still works in some communities.

  2. I also enjoy the term ‘guest’. We could use ‘member’ for regular library users and ‘guest’ for visitors and residents who have potential or curiosity/desire to become ‘members’ or are simply passing through. Is there a single word that encompasses the virtues of each term?

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