Guest Blogger

Storytime for Customers?

Photo from ALSC Stock Photos
Photo from ALSC Stock Photos

Do you call the children who attend your storytimes your customers? I doubt it. Yet, you might call their parents customers, if that’s the term your library has chosen to use. Are families customers or patrons, users or members? How about teachers or childcare providers?

Customers, patrons, users, students, and members are terms we use to frame our relationship with the adult library community and to communicate library goals and values to our stakeholders. Recently, Karen Pundsack explored the on-going debate about terminology in a comprehensive and thought-provoking article. After reading it, I wondered where our friends fit in; it is all so terribly library-centric.

Children’s librarians should step up and join the discussion. We have a different perspective on the most appropriate and accurate terms to use to refer to our library community.

We provide library services to children, their families, and people who care for children and educate them. The terms we use, to describe those we serve, reflect our core values of inclusiveness and respect. People come first and personhood matters. Hannah has developmental disabilities. Trey speaks with his hands. Anika Kapoor is a third grade teacher. The children will go nuts for Jeff Kinney’s new book!

Which term does your library system use? Are you satisfied with the justification behind the use of that term? Do your customers love Open Them Shut Them?

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Our guest blogger today is Jan Connell. Jan is a Children’s Librarian at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, in Toledo, Ohio.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

7 comments

  1. Rick

    Speaking personally, I prefer “families” and “friends” and “kids”.

    “Children” is good.. but sometimes feels a little formal. I think it’s good to project a formal tone in many instances.. but my preference is for a friendlier tone.

    It’s a shame “families” doesn’t translate super-well across the age spectrum.

    1. Jan Connell

      Your point about “families” is well-taken. It is unfortunate that it doesn’t translate across the age spectrum, but the term “community” does, as in “our library community.”

  2. Lisa

    When I’m in storytime or working with small children, I say “friends.” Otherwise, I usually say “families” or “young patrons.” I just explained the word “patron” to a young patron this week, actually. I feel like it’s a good word for them to know! Old-fashioned, but valuable in the way it gives library users and supporters a term of distinction.

    1. Jan Connell

      It is difficult to explain “patron” to a youngster, but your observation that it is a term of distinction recommends its use. We say “friends,” in storytime, too.

  3. Kelly Doolittle

    Nice discussion, good article, and I like both Lisa and Rick’s responses. I’m going to wax philosophical and add: my over-arching feelings on this issue take into account the changing nature of our world – how so many cultures make up the colorful rainbow that is our world – and therefore, the people that we, as libraries, serve. So I don’t like to think we need to label that gorgeous rainbow with just a few terms. Think of the ubiquitous analogy of how many words for “snow” there are in the language of indigenous people in the north 🙂

    Thinking about what works best for each situation or issue as we speak or write about them might give us some help with coming up with the best terms possible. I can’t remember who amongst our staff came up with the idea of using the term “grownups” for the folks who come along to story hour with the kids, but I really like it, because it helps me avoid the label of “parents” which obviously has many pitfalls, since not every accompanying adult is a parent. I feel I can add “caregivers” to the mix, but I avoid “adults” because, to me, that word had negative connotations – don’t really know why! “Grownups” on the other hand, has an element of humor in it for me. I like using humor in my storytimes! And we, the staff at our libraries, are all different people too, so we should take that into account as well 🙂 Not only that, we are “public” as well as “staff” so that opens up the window to interpretation even more! What fun!

    But again, using a variety of terms may help us represent more clearly the variety of wonderful “patrons” (I like that word, too) we get to serve and work with at our public libraries.

    1. Jan Connell

      It is important to think of the context when deciding which term to use. That’s a very good point. The term we use in a funding presentation to the library board will probably not be useful in an interaction with a teen advisory board or, as you note, grownups in storytime. What’s needed, I think, is a discussion of terms and the rationale for using them at the local level.

  4. Lisa N.

    This is such an interesting debate, and I appreciate you bringing it up here! I feel like “customers” connotes a capitalist understanding of our interactions and services, and as a system of services funded by taxpayers that is supposed to be open access to all, some of of librarian ideals – such as equal access to free information and an inclusive public sphere of information in which we make information available at no cost – are at odds with that, especially neoliberal capitalism. So what does that mean for this debate? I personally shy away from saying customer, because it is so explicitly capitalist, which I don’t feel my work as a librarian is (especially in children’s services, where I want to be supporting a person’s development, not a consumer or worker’s development), and I think it’s important to differentiate our work from other types of work. But others at my institution wouldn’t agree, and it definitely touches a nerve in the library world! It’s an interesting tension and I think it’s something we all have to grapple with as we decide how to advocate for our work and for our patrons.

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