April 19, 2018

Customer or Patron? Which is Your Choice?

I was copied on an interesting email conversation about what to call the people who use or libraries: customer or patron. Given the back-and-forth comments in that conversation, I thought it was a good question to toss out to you. Which does your library use and what are the arguments for or against?

At our library we use customer, and have for a very long time. Probably not as long as Cuyahoga, which has used that term for 20 years. Others — Queens, Brooklyn, San Jose, use customer as well. Many others continue with patron — Multnomah, Indianapolis-Marion County

A couple of key points from the email conversation:

From Calgary Public Library:
We saw a clear split in our research:
•          Staff preferred patron
•          Users over the age of 50 preferred patron or member
•          Users from 35 to 50 were evenly divided between member and customer
•          Users under 35 overwhelmingly preferred customer

So we decided to “focus on the future” and use the term customer.  We also felt it was a good name for keeping staff focused on user needs instead of our usual tendency to “navel gaze.”

From Hennepin County:
Because of multiple staff inquiries, Hennepin County Library is once again addressing the question. We used to call them patrons, then switched to customers and are now discussing the topic again. We’ve done an informal poll on our public website, received more than 55500 votes in two weeks (both staff and the public votes), and the results show that 81 percent prefer patrons.

From Alison Circle:
You know you can count on me for an opinion! I’m sure that this is like people naming their children, a very personal discussion. But for me, working to position the library as continuously relevant and in tune with public needs, I strongly prefer customer. Patron has an old-fashioned, exclusive connation to it that alludes to art patrons. 

I always remember that my own husband says to me: "Who uses the library? No one goes there anymore!" Now you and I know how WRONG he is (but only on this one subject, of course!) because our buildings are vibrant and full of engaged people from all walks of life. But what he is getting at is the perception of libraries loosing their market share. Use of the word patron reinforces that notion.

And in my ideal world somewhere off in la-la land, I’d love to see a single brand for all libraries (certainly not in name or look and feel, so don’t worry!) that uses the same word and the same thinking behind the use of that word. That would be something powerful!

Alison Circle About Alison Circle

Alison Circle is director of marketing communications for Columbus Metropolitan Library. Previously she was an Account Director at Jack Morton Worldwide, a global branding agency, and her primary client was Target Stores. Prior to that she was the National Marketing Director for Minnesota Public Radio and "A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor." She has advanced degrees in English and Fine Arts, and is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.



  1. I have always wondered why these are the only two choices. It makes more sense to me to refer to “people who use libraries” as library users.

  2. We are currently using customer and have for about 3 years, It always makes me feel like we are selling something and as a person who worked in retail for a while I can’t get that out of my head. I think patron sounds friendlier.

  3. Norman Oder/Library Journal says:

    Last year, consultant Joan Frye Williams made the case for “member.” Other commenters liked “reader,” “user,” and “client.” http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/1010000101/post/810029081.html

  4. Norman Oder/Library Journal says:

    Last year, consultant Joan Frye Williams made the case for “member.” Other commenters liked “reader,” “user,” and “client.” http://www.libraryjournal.com/blog/1010000101/post/810029081.html

  5. french huguenot says:

    Our new director instituted customer versus patron. I like it. It puts it into proper context. We provide goods and services. It should be more about the customer and less about the staff.

    Berkeley County Library System

  6. I actually like visitor.

    User has a negative connotation. Customer makes me think only of retail (where “customer service” is normally a joke)and, IMO, is somewhat cold–reducing the relationship to the exchange of goods and services. Client implies a therapy session and member seems too exclusive.

    Visitor, to me, conveys warmth and hospitality.

  7. I feel that “Patron” or “Library user” are the appropriate terms…BK Spoiled the term customer, for me, especially for actual retail workers, because the Customer is NOT always right, especially when they return a book late, after arguing that they had returned it previously.