THOUGH THERE ARE FOLKS WHO are dismissive of semantics, the words we employ to describe the people who use our libraries are important. Not only do different terms have certain implications, but these words persistently shape our understanding of who these individuals are and how we should be serving them. These words also impact what people think of our libraries and how people feel while in them. It’s not semantics—it’s a user experience issue.
Terms of engagement
The debate over such library terminology isn’t new, but I’ll explain why it has practical implications after we settle on a term.
The industry standard, patron, is tempting to the traditionalist in me and is the term I use most often. I’m sure I was taught in library school that people using a public library are called patrons; it made good enough sense that I didn’t question it. I’m still not sure if we use the word because people patronize libraries (and, please, let’s skip over the messy bit regarding different uses of that word), or if we use it because it’s a holdover from people being patrons of the arts. Either way, it works, but it isn’t very powerful, descriptive, or aspirational.
User is too impersonal and potentially problematic: users also are people who don’t give anything back in return, those who take drugs, and those who operate equipment. This last sense of the word makes it a good one for talking about library users in technical discussions, but we need to be mindful not to let this dominate how we view the individuals engaging with our services. Nobody wants to be referred to as a user.
At best, customer emphasizes a transactional approach; at worst, it appropriates a business term that undermines the public service element of what we do. People are overcommercialized and inundated by monetization opportunities. Let’s make libraries a refuge from this.
What’s left? I’ve heard a few people (including David Lankes, who explains one possible origin of the word stemming from Joan Frye Williams) advocate for the term member, and I think it is the best one for our purposes. Unlike the previous options, this word has positive things going for it: member evokes a sense of belonging or even partial ownership. It indicates that someone is making an active choice. It implies an organization in which you can participate. Aren’t these things for which we should be aiming?
Aside from being an appropriate and meaningful word to describe people that use our libraries, member presents libraries with a fantastic opportunity—we can explicitly state the benefits of membership. This is excellent fodder for a small handout and a web page—and a great advertising tool.
Library membership benefits will differ inasmuch as libraries differ; conversely, there are plenty of commonalities. The following ideas are a starting point for developing your own explanation of why people should become members of your library. This can be a great exercise to ensure everyone is on the same page and to focus your library’s goals. Likewise, if the following suggestions don’t seem applicable to your situation, it might be a good opportunity to evaluate why.
Benefit statement. This should be a strong hook telling people why they should become members. Don’t just rehash the stuff your library does here. Instead, emphasize how membership will positively influence people’s lives. Example: Once you join the Niceville Public Library, you’ll be more connected and creative.
What you can do with your membership. List what people can accomplish though their membership, focusing on activities. Example: At the Niceville Public Library, you can learn more about your hobbies, meet people in the community, and find a space to create.
What you’ll get from membership. Don’t just list access to materials—you can affect the way people view your library by emphasizing other services. Example: Niceville Public Library members have access to more than just books and DVDs (though they get that, too!)—they can get help from top-notch researchers and readers’ advisory professionals, brush up on skills at classes and events, and draw on our variety of computers and other technology.
Monetary value of membership. Calculate the financial benefits. Example: Active Niceville Public Library members can save hundreds of dollars annually just by using the library.
There’s a lot of potential for creative and effective explanations of the benefits of library membership. But it all turns on a word: before any of this can happen, we must fundamentally change the way we think of the people coming through our doors and engaging with us online. They may be patrons, users, and customers in other contexts, but once they’re with us, they’re entitled to all of the benefits membership entails.