This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 15, 1995

November 15, 1995 - patrons v customers

I seem to be the only librarian in the state these days who still uses the word "patrons" to refer to the people who use a library. Everyone else wants to call them "customers."

Probably that's because so many librarians have gone to workshops lately about "customer service." They seem to believe that if libraries would just act more as businesses do, libraries would therefore deliver better service.

I disagree. The implication is that libraries don't deliver good service right now. In my experience, the library that DOESN'T deliver good service sticks out, is odd, you notice it, it's rare.

I'll go farther than that. As a rule, the service I get at almost any public library is far better than the service I get from most for-profit businesses. Library staff tend to be more alert to people's presence, quicker to respond to a request, more likely to be well-trained, and in general, more committed to making the patron walk out happy.

How come? It's no big mystery. Libraries generally attract people who are interested in people and interested in books. Taken together, those two interests make a person, well, interesting. Interesting people tend to be lively, able, and fun to be around.

Likewise, hooking up other people with interesting books (or a good story, or a timely bit of information) is a lot of fun.

Consistently competent employees, an often-entertaining and educational task, and generally pleasant working conditions -- that adds up to the sort of work situation most businesses can only dream about.

Too, most for-profit businesses are owned by somebody specific, "the boss," somebody who often has little connection to the employee, and whose ultimate success may or may not be of sharp interest to the worker. In the case of the public library, the owners are both the people who walk in the door AND the people providing the service.

The closest thing to that in the business world is a work force where everybody owns stock in the company. It happens, but it's rare. In public libraries, it's the norm.

I suspect that my profession's increasing emphasis on "customers" has at least two origins. The first can be found in the country's swing to the Republican side of our two-party system, a side that generally focuses on the private sector.

The second origin, perhaps related, is what I believe is our time's deep misunderstanding of the whole meaning of "the public sector." I sense in some of my colleagues an increasing shame for "feeding at the public trough," as if the desire for public service itself bespeaks a failure of character. (Remember the old post-war wisecrack: "If he's so smart, why ain't he rich?")

But that way lies community and cultural collapse. At the heart of our civic lives there must be sound and intelligently managed institutions, open to all, responsive to all, served by a core group of proud and industrious public servants. Not all of these institutions are tax-supported (churches and civic groups, for instance), but some of them have to be (schools, libraries, water and sanitation, police, and so on).

Why? I could give you the dollar and "sense" argument (and no doubt will, one of these days). But here's the short answer: Because there is more to life than consumerism, and more to a culture than credit cards.

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