Tag Archives: terminology

What do you call the people who use your library?

Voting is now closed in my poll on what we call the people who use our libraries. Thank you to everyone who voted and participated in the discussion here and on Twitter.

Studying at the library Image credit: University Communications

The results can be seen in the chart below. I have to say I’m not surprised that User came out top with 34%, it was always in the top two as the votes came in. From the comments I’d heard on Twitter I think people prefer it because it can be applied to everyone, no matter what type of library they are using or for what purpose. The idea that different sectors used, or preferred, different terms came up a lot in the discussion. A couple of academic librarians felt member was more appropriate to public libraries because it implies that people have to join to use the library’s services. My argument against this and for the use of the term member in academic libraries too is that membership of the university library may be automatic but it is membership nonetheless and a status that is required in order to use the services provided.

I am surprised that Reader came in second and actually was leading for most of the time. I always thought Reader was a peculiar term. I’d never come across it before I started work in Oxford and assumed it was a legacy from the way back when. I’d be interested to hear in the comments whether anyone outside Oxbridge users this term.

Two additional terms that were suggested by those voting ‘Other’ were Borrower and Visitor. I have problems with each of them but for different reasons. Borrower to me feels outdated and implies that those people are only using one aspect of a library’s service. Visitor seems to be the opposite of Member; it suggests a lack of ownership or belonging and I think it puts distance between that person and the library.

Computer scientists and drug dealers have users

Ever since I started working in libraries one thing has troubled me – what do we call the people who use our service? Where I used to work the most common term was Reader, but this for some reason always felt a bit odd and slightly pretentious to me. Working in an academic library I will often refer to them by their status at the University but this causes problems if you want to refer to them as the group as a whole. I don’t like calling them customers as they don’t pay us directly for the service we provide. What else can we call them?

This week I listened to R. David Lankes’ presentation The Librarian Militant, The Librarian Triumphant. At around 19 minutes he has an aside (from which the title of this post is taken) in which he expresses his opinion regarding this question:

By the way I will not use the word patron because we don’t pay them to paint or rather I guess receive money from them to paint. I don’t think they’re customers, I don’t think they’re consumers and god knows they’re not users. Right? Computer scientists and drug dealers have users, we do not. They’re members. If you ask them, and we do this all the time. If you go and ask the people in your library what should we call you? They look at you and go member; I got a card, I pay taxes. It’s a sense of ownership. Why don’t we give them that? They’re members.

So let’s add member to the mix. I like it and I have to say I think for the first time I feel some sense of closure on this question. But I’m interested in what you think… so here’s a question for you, what do you call the people who use your library? Tell me by responding to this poll.

Update (25/11/10): Voting in the poll is now closed. I’ve written up the results in the post What do you call the people who use your library?