Language in the Stacks

Welcome and thank you to another guest blogger, Zachary Frazier.

Zachary Frazier is in his second term with the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information. His focus is Academic Libraries. He’s originally from Seattle and now lives in Columbia, SC. Don’t tell the King County Library System where he is. He still owes them some money for a Ted Nugent CD he checked out as a teenager. He’s on Twitter as @wildbookchase and blogs here.

This is a response to Heidi’s earlier post, The Name Game. As always, we welcome your perspective in the comments and in future post ideas!

I’m one of those people who think that language matters. It may not affect the real but so much of our world is manufactured and abstract. That abstraction has real consequences like when derivative housing securities training put people out of work in Michigan auto factories. I think we exert some control over systems and our interactions with them through our use of language. Libraries address potential users as much as they address actual users. Our institutions’ stakeholders expand beyond the pool of current users, our geographic locations, or our web footprint but into new spaces, lives, and communities.  Because all of our stakeholders are the driving force behind what we do, I think what we call them is of primary importance. The language we use can be of extreme importance for our institutions, and our jobs.

Patron has a certain institutional history that affects the way we perceive our place in the world and what our institutions do.  It links us with the people who walk through our doors, the services we provide, and our institutional history. It provides context that recognizes that those services might be intangible in any measurable way. Further, Patron reifies the idea that even where we can measure those services, no dollar amount can be assigned to them. Within patron’s framework, as knowledge is valued so too must the library be valued. Patron is directly linked to that concept.

Patron(s) is a word that protects our public institutions from the slow creep capitalist epistemology. My biggest problem with other terms is that it pushes us into the subjective world of modern capitalism where everything exists for profit, or to be put into a profit framework. Once we put them into a category where they are able to be perceived in market terms, they are greatly diminished. At that point there is an acknowledgment, tacitly or explicitly, that there is now a price associated with it. We should never reduce our services to a price tag. Our practical arguments always need to be couched in rhetoric about our intrinsic value. Using a term like Patron every day is the start of reifying that part of our argument.

Even a fairly neutral term like the term User pushes the library out of a safe deontological framework where knowledge is the intrinsic value, and places it in the utilitarian world. When we use something it implies that we are using it as a tool, for the production of something (ie, pleasure, or capital), and those uses have value. At that point things exist in at least in a cost benefit framework, and the epistemology of capitalism can be begin to chip away at our knowledge/service focused techne and professional culture.

Our greatest strengths lay in our intangible value. Patron is a term that recognizes that. When we adjust out terms to allow for conceptual readjustment we lose take what is currently unmeasured, split it from the immeasurable, and loose the parts that can’t be quantified.  Libraries exist not just for computer classes or James Patterson best sellers but also have the unique role of shepherding our knowledge into the future. We preserve information so it can be used and discovered in the future by people we may never know or meet. Our forbearers practiced this as well. Library books can sit on our shelves for years and sometimes decades before they get called forward and used. Those lonely titles are just as much a part of our mission as getting James Patterson books or the latest scholarly research to our patrons. Their value is truly immeasurable. Because of this temporal dislocation that is an inherent part of our institutions role, we have to remember that to tend our gardens with a keen eye as much on our future patrons as on our past and present ones.

Using the term Patron is an important part of maintaining our professional culture. It is similar to a lawyer using a Latin phrase in the court room. Patron is a way of directly connecting present practices, philosophies, and epistemologies to their historical grounding. It also serves as short hand for our professional code. Every time we say it we invoke our responsibility and privilege to serve our communities. When librarians say no to the FBI, we invoke the term Patron. Its use is a professional calling that reminds us about who we are, and what we do. It serves that purpose almost as powerfully as it serves to identify our institutions or our Patrons themselves.

Patron is a powerful word. As a symbol it is nothing less than a symbolic reaffirmation of community value, our traditions, and our role. Maybe over the course of time it will lose its value, or another word will come to have similar connotations. In the present, though, I will continue to serve the Patrons who walk through the doors of my institution.

Categories: Big Picture

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8 replies

    • I have to agree with John. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve giggled in class thinking about “users” addicted to library DVDs…


  1. “Library books can sit on our shelves for years and sometimes decades before they get called forward and used.” This may be true in some libraries, but many (if not most) public libraries weed items a little more than that. It’s pragmatic (and a careful librarian will keep the literary classics on the shelves through the process). For this reason I would not count the “temporal dislocation” factor as an intangible strength of libraries.

    Libraries certainly have lots of intangible strengths, but we have also spent a lot of time trying to convey these strengths to others to prove our worth. If they’re intangible, making that case is rather difficult. When it comes to library advocacy, the more tangible arguments are probably the ones that will stick.

    I agree that “user” is an impersonal term. I personally never had such strong associations connected to the word “patron”; I tend to use the terms interchangeably. Is that the wrong approach? Annie makes a good point: “customer” is becoming more common in library speak. I kind of like the customer service approach to library work; really putting the patron (haha) first. What do you all think of it?


    • I think Libraries as they’ve adopted a more “customer service” orientation have moved away from their unseated temporal nature. I also was talking more or less about libraries in an idealized state. Every library is going to be different if we define libraries as institutions that exist for the preservation and accessing of information then I think its only natural that we need to be able to plan for multiple users across multiple time periods. Our ability to do it, and its integration into the core of our institutional values is part of our strengths and I don’t feel like we should shove it under the bus to the extent that we have. The most successful libraries will do both.


  2. Thinking about the term “patron,” I wonder if we could use this to our advantage in advocacy in public libraries (the systems I’m most familiar with). I agree with John that “patron” is a term of dignity and respect. I think of “patron” of the arts, and all that; could we appeal to certain audiences in emphasizing the relationship between patrons and our materials, and our importance as a cultural institution?


  3. A library system I used to frequent called us “customers” which really gave me the creeps. I think it opens the door to charging for service, although it might also give TPTB pause when they think about cutting services. Observing “customer” needs as opposed to “user” needs invites a more service-oriented approach.

    I think “Patron” is a more respectful term all around, for all the reasons you mention above; also, libraries recognize the debt they owe the people who use them, and the artistic subtext reminds us of the social responsibility we hold (although this could also be taken too far by proponents of “educational-book-only” public libraries).


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