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I have never taken to calling people who use libraries “customers.” Though it is increasingly common usage, it has always seemed the seditious work of a linguistic fifth column that is trying to privatize public institutions one word at a time, or at least imply that non-profit services are chronically inferior to retail operations. “Customer” has so firmly been attached to the word “service” you would think the only model for high quality service is great customer service. Meanwhile, the phrase "public servant" has fallen out of use.

To be sure, the traditional word for someone who uses a library, “patron,” isn’t particularly appealing. It sounds sycophantic, as if people bestow a gift upon the library by merely visiting it. “User” evokes a taste for controlled substances. Some librarians have suggested using the word “member” – which sounds both a little naughty and like an invitation-only exclusive club, but at least it emphasizes that the library is something that belongs to its community.

I think what really bothers me about this use of “customer” isn’t so much that it’s a business term, but that it makes the community member into a consumer rather than a joint-owner of the library. I’m not a customer of the city’s parks or public safety departments or the court system. Maybe “citizen” is the word I’m searching for, though that may make people think they will have to do good deeds or attend a party caucus or something.

I started thinking about this today because I read an article about how libraries could serve their customers better if we embraced our identity as “content creators.” I respect the authors of the article – they do interesting, useful work – but “content creator” is a bastard child of “intellectual property” and “social media,” who were probably drunk at the time of conception. It’s also curious that the library rather than the people who work in it is considered a content creator. I suppose that quaint cataloging notion of “corporate authorship” is morphing into the idea of the library as a corporation. One that creates content for its customers.

I doubt that the photographers who worked for the Chicago Sun Times ever thought of themselves as “content creators.” Anyone who carries a camera-equipped phone is a content creator nowadays, while the new word for those unfortunate photographers is “unemployed.”

I’m growing weary, too, of talking about return on investment and sustainability models. I mean, libraries don’t make money, they spend it. Investment and sustainability were things the finance office handled. In fact, our finance folks were deeply uncomfortable back when we tried to keep the coins people shoved into the photocopy machines before we replaced the copiers with free scanners. “You are not a profit center,” we were told quite sternly. Apparently, cost centers and profit centers are like matter and anti-matter – if they come in contact, accountants’ heads explode. But market metaphors have so permeated our culture that just about everything we do is described in financial terms.

Everyone wants innovation, but it has to be both disruptive and sustainable. That just seems unfair. And don’t get me started on “deliverables.” Who let that ugly word into the English language?

It has been over a decade since Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt published Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary. Maybe we need a new devil’s dictionary for current buzzwords. What are your favorite candidates? 


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