Association of College & Research Libraries

The Way I See It: Customer service? Not really

By Irene B. Hoadley

Do we need to watch our phraseology?

The new byword in library literature is cus- tomer service—new customer services, improved customer services, services based on customer needs. The customer has become the focal point of libraries and many other service organizations.

For some time, the word customer has gnawed at me, somehow not feeling right. When I checked a dictionary, I knew why I was bothered by the term. A customer, by definition, is someone who “purchases a com- modity or service.” On the other hand, a user is someone who “carries out a purpose or action availing oneself of something as a means or instrument to an end.”

Without question, libraries provide some services that are purchased by patrons. But, to the best of my knowledge, the large majority of library services are provided without a direct cost to the user. Libraries ordinarily do not charge for answering reference questions or checking out books or for using reference materials or government documents. So how can these individuals be called customers if they are not purchasing something?

Is this a case of the emperor’s new clothes? Is anyone in libraryland willing to question this new terminology? It was in 1990 that library users began to be referred to as customers, a term borrowed from the quality movement which was burgeoning in the corporate world. “Customer satisfaction,” “quality services,” and

“total quality management” were the phrases of the day. A few libraries wanting to be on the cutting edge of management innovations be- gan to discuss customer satisfaction and how libraries could address the issue. Yet, in some libraries, the main consideration is not the user. Public, special, and school libraries have al- ways placed more emphasis on meeting the needs of users than have academic libraries, where collections have been the primary fo- cus.

The move to focus on service is good and long overdue. The emphasis on quality service is also good. The recognition that those who use libraries have opin- ions about the quality of the service they receive is a step forward. Every library could improve its services, and not only reference service but also circulation, reserve, and interlibrary loan.

Putting the needs of users before the prefer- ences of staff has to be a first step. Another issue which does not get much attention is the need to take services to users rather than ex- pecting everyone to come to one place to ful- fill their needs. Libraries have traditionally had hierarchies of users rather than providing equi- table service to all. There is still plenty of room for improvement.

In a recent article, Allen Veanor discusses the impact of vogue management techniques:1

I am very critical of all business management derivatives—they tend to be deterministic, highly reductive, and transient. But I do not suggest we cannot learn from business and industry or should not apply appropriate business techniques to managing academic libraries. The key is in the words appropriate and proper, (p. 398)

Is this a case of the emperor’s new clothes? Is anyone in libraryland willing to question this new terminology?

Irene B. Hoadley is former director of the Evans Library Capital Campaign at Texas A&M University; e-mail:

This is one more example of libraries jumping on a bandwagon, taking off some of the items, and putting them in libraries without thinking about what’s being done. However, terminology that is both correct and appropriate in our environment is preferable to adapting the terminology of another discipline. It is not too late. Librarians can acknowledge the meaning of the word customer and stop using it to describe those who use libraries. Or librarians can continue to discuss customer service and be like the emperor without any clothes.


  1. Allen Veanor, “Paradigm Lost, Paradigm Regained? A Persistent Personnel Issue in Academic Librarianship, II,” College and Research Libraries 55 (September 1994): 389-402.
Copyright © American Library Association

Article Views (Last 12 Months)

No data available

Contact ACRL for article usage statistics from 2010-April 2017.

Article Views (By Year/Month)

January: 10
February: 6
March: 6
April: 11
May: 4
June: 5
July: 1
August: 0
September: 1
October: 15
November: 4
January: 12
February: 9
March: 22
April: 10
May: 18
June: 8
July: 11
August: 4
September: 9
October: 12
November: 3
December: 5
January: 0
February: 0
March: 0
April: 0
May: 0
June: 0
July: 0
August: 19
September: 9
October: 22
November: 15
December: 12