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Patron vs. Customer
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Grant Barrett
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Suzie, who used to work at the Dallas Public Library, is wondering why librarians are being asked to refer to their patrons as customers. Does the word customer make consulting a library and borrowing books feel too much like a transaction? Eric Patridge, in his 1955 book The Concise Usage and Abusage, explains that you can have a patron of the arts, but not of a greengrocer or a bookmaker. What do you think people who use a library should be called? This is part of a complete episode.

Mrs. Fancy Pants
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Both seem inappropriate to me. I like calling them “readers” first, or perhaps “visitors.” “Customers” or “patrons” promotes a money-changing atmosphere, even if patron is not defined as such. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. It’s the association people have with the word that should be considered, not some focus on proper grammar when assigning the identifier. If the idea is to welcome the masses, then offer a less stuffy appeal.

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The word that is used most of the time to denote someone who avails themselves of a service, especially on a regular basis is “client.”     Customer has the image of a casual purchase, while patron has the image of benefactor.


I limit my 2 cents worth of comments to public libraries. Because public libraries are tax supported and for the benefit of all community residents, I prefer the term patron. We support our libraries; we own our libraries; we direct our libraries. Our use of library services helps direct how they will be run. Of course as patrons and supporters we should expect excellent “customer service” but I think of it as more. “customer” seems to focus on the transaction more than the relationship. How do most businesses respond when “the boss” enters the business? Perhaps the library managers are just looking for ways to remind their staff that the people who enter to use the library are not interruptions but the purpose of their work. I think most do a terrific job and I like the term patron – it is special for libraries and people who support the arts or other causes.

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 I thought it interesting when one of the libraries I used stopped charging “overdue fines” and instead charged “extended use fees” so readers would not feel guilty.  In more recent years, I’ve noticed clerks grimacing at delivering the bad news of an overdue fine, so often when returning a stack of books, I’d announced that I owed them a mortgage payment, which relaxed everybody.  It blew my mind when I heard a person ahead of me announce that he had a mortgage payment due on his books. Apparently, people thought it cute enough to adopt as their own.

A customer is one who grants you his custom.  I think it’s perfectly fine for libraries to tell users that they appreciate the trade, and for library clerks to remind themselves that the customer needs to be treated as if he were not an interruption of their work, but the reason for their work. 

Not that I have many complaints on that score, what with increasing numbers of libraries posting “No Silence” signs, and adopting library cats.


This falls in with the practice of retail businesses now referring to their customers as “guests” (which brings to mind Ben Franklin’s dictum about guests and fish). Perhaps the change from “patron”, a term noted as referring to a benefactor — patron of the arts, patron of the symphony, patron of the opera (perhaps American libraries greatest patron was Andrew Carnegie whose donations were, in many cases, matching grants) — that change comes with so many public library systems now being managed by those holding Master of Business Administration degrees rather than Master of Library and/or Information Science degrees. This comes with libraries adopting the “big box retail bookstore” model, thus the diminution of a patron’s interaction to a mere business transaction with little human value placed on it.

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