Babies, Coworking Spaces, "Member" v "Customer" and User Experience

I've been doing a lot of thinking and questioning about the future of public libraries and, obviously, not a lot of comic-writing. Some of the questions that keeps coming up for me are

Will the babies in today's baby storytime bring their babies to storytime at the library?

Should storytime be offered, like shows at a museum, every hour on the hour, every day?

What will storytime in 2021 look like?


Another question:

Should a portion of the library building be rebranded and promoted as the ideal coworking space?

I follow a listserv for my neighborhood, and folks are often looking for coworking spaces (to rent) and others to cowork with. Plenty of people already run their small businesses from or do their freelance work at the library, but entirely independently, without the quietly social, communal feeling that it seems those who are looking for coworking spaces crave. Could we fashion a "coworking area," much the way we fashion teen and children's areas, in the library? And aggressively, cleverly promote it as a "coworking space--but better," because workers in the library will have access to on-site librarians who can help them with database searches, etc?


Customers, Members, and UX:

I was listening to the Seattle Public Library's podcast of a panel discussion called "The User Experience in the 21st Century Library" (scroll) last night and it got me thinking how the simple use of "member" for library users could contribute to a more positive UX than "customer."

I am a customer at the gas station, the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and (according to the library system I use) the library. To be a customer is to be someone who wants or needs something and pays for it. It's transaction-based, not relationship-based (though I might feel something more like a relationship when I am a "regular customer" or "one of our best customers"). I don't really choose to be a customer--I have no choice but to be one (I can't make all the stuff I need to live, at least not where I live now). So I can't say I'm proud to be a customer. It's not something I think of as part of my identity. It's not something I am all the time--just when I need something. I shake off my customerhood the second an individual transaction is complete. Until I need something again, I won't be a customer. Until I need something from you again, I won't be your customer.

To be a member is to have joined something, to have decided you want to be a part of something, part of a community. I think this is true both for paid memberships and (essentially) free memberships. The few times I have briefly held a membership to a gym (paid), I felt like a member when I walked in and my membership card was scanned, not "just" a customer. I was part of a community of people who worked out there, and part of a community of people who had decided that working out was a good idea. I was proud to be a member, because it meant something about me, as would being a member of a certain church, political organization, community of folks who support the same arts organization, etc. Being a member of this or that is, if only a little, but often a lot, part of my identity. I am a member of an organization even when I am not doing something directly related to that organization: I am always a member.

When I walk into a place where I am a customer, I am already harried. I have a specific thing to accomplish, obstacle-like, and I want to accomplish it and get the heck out. When I walk into a place where I am a member, my breathing relaxes. I might have a task to accomplish, but my mindset is different. I'm in a shared space, not at a pit stop. (Someone on the Seattle podcast says "A member has rights...and responsibilities." Yes.)

Sometimes the switch from using "customer" to using something warmer is too ridiculous to swallow. I will never, no matter how many times I am referred to as one, feel like a "guest" at Target. But I think it possible that a customer who hasn't visited the library in a while might question why we "still" need libraries, and a member who hasn't visited the library in a while might argue for why we do.

When articles on public library systems and budgets appear online of late, there always seems to be at least one commenter who asks why s/he--who does not use the library--should have to pay for  "poor" or "cheap" people to get "CDs and internet" at "The Free Store". Though s/he may have a library card tucked away somewhere that hasn't been used in years, that commenter doesn't feel like a member of the library. S/he feels like someone who is not a customer at a store.

I don't work at The Free Store. You can ask me to call the people I assist customers, but I want them to have the best user experience possible. I want them to feel like, and be, members.


David J. Fiander said...

Did you see this strip from a few days ago? I think it fits in perfectly with your comments about coworking.


ESP said...

I cannot STAND the totally ubiquitous use of "customer" to refer to people who visit a place. They even refer to students as "consumers of knowledge". Argh!

Emily Lloyd said...

David: Ouch and wow, that's great. Hadn't seen it. Thanks for the link--subscribing to the feed now.

Eric: I think there's some misguided notion from admins everywhere that having us refer to our members, students, etc as "customers" will psychologically drive us to give better "customer service." It's not the case--it switches things from being relationship-based to transaction-based. When I was a TA at a certain university, the new dean had us switch from saying "students" to saying "customers." Ick on a stick.

waltc said...

Customer? Possibly the worst word you can use for the members of the library community (unless you're actually running a bookstore and calling it a library). Patrons is much better. So is users.

So, for that matter, is members--which Joan Frye Williams suggested as a term some time back. When I asked other librarians within the Library Leadership Network to choose a preferred term, with "members" as one of the options, it was never chosen...but then, neither was "customer."

So, yes, if you're using the horrendous "customer," then "member" is certainly a big improvement.

Emily Lloyd said...

Walt, agreed. I like patron and user better than customer, and I like member better than all of them.

Anonymous said...

I prefer patron. To me, membership involves the paying out of fees and an inclusiveness that shuts regular people out, like being a member of a "country club."

Patron includes everyone.

Emily Lloyd said...

Gigi, I have just the opposite impression--when I hear "patron," it sounds swankier to me, like those who can afford to be "patrons of the arts." It also sounds less like a two-way relationship to me. I think of being a member of a community (free), or political party, or religious organization, as more accessible. But I definitely see your side, and why the larger library community has never agreed on any one term.

Unknown said...

Yes! on the coworking space. That is a fantastic idea. I life in a relatively affordable midwestern city and coworking still takes a sizeable chunk out of a freelancer's income. The library offers the perfect space for coworking.

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