Library customers are information seekers who make use of or receive services from the library. They are the primary users of the library resources and information systems such as catalogs, digital archives, books, periodicals, pamphlets, virtual reference, atlases, article databases, and reference librarians, among a host of other resources. Customers use the library’s information systems in order to seek out the information they are looking for. Other terms that are used in exchange of library customer include user, client, inquirer, visitor, information seeker, and patron. Customer is preferred over the other terminology because “the word customer, which implies payment for a product or service, is a better reflection of what actually transpires between the library and the people of the community” (Weingand, 2).
The customer is perhaps the most important component to the library’s survival because without information seekers the need for libraries or librarians diminishes considerably. In order for libraries to maintain the patronage of its customers there is a premium placed on customer service.
The importance of customer relationships and customer service were recognized as far back as the American Libraries Movement.
Samuel S. Green emphatically stressed the need for librarians to maintain a good relationship with the library customer. Green also stressed the need for assistance in finding information and answering questions that customers have. He pointed out that, “persons who use a popular library for the purposes of investigating generally need a great deal of assistance” (74). Green focused on the importance of answering customer queries and believed that “a librarian should be as unwilling to allow an inquirer to leave the library with his question as a shop-keeper is to have a customer go out of his store without making a purchase” (79). He emphasized the need to mingle with customers, as well as the benefits of having a positive relationship with customers. Green reiterated this point when he stated, “the more freely a librarian mingles with readers, and the greater amount of assistance he renders them, the more intense does the conviction of citizens, also, become, that the library is a useful institution, and the more willing do they grow to grant money in larger and larger sums to be used in buying books and employing additional assistants” (81). Green thought customer relations were vital to the survival of libraries in the 1880s, and his concerns are just as appropriate today.
One of the concerns librarians have for answering inquiries are the physical and mental barriers that complicate the reference interview. Norman Crum (1969) examins the barriers that prevent or interrupt the process of attaining acceptable answers to customer questions for librarians during the reference interview. Crum asserts that, “establishing and maintaining a customer-orientation is considered the most vital method of reducing customer-librarian barriers” (269). Other barriers Crum highlights include physical barriers (distance between customer and librarian at the reference desk), personality barriers (some librarians will need a great deal of patience and tact to draw out feedback), communications barriers, professional and psychological barriers (doctors or engineers may not be as willing to ask for help because they may feel they are admitting ignorance).
Difficult customers and situations create a challenge for librarians. Librarians tackle the challenging issue of difficult library customers often in reference encounters. Helen M. Gothberg emphasizes that there are a separate set of solutions for dealing with difficult customer behaviors than those used for defusing difficult situations. She stresses the importance public of relations stating, “since the buck stops at the top….finding ways to cope effectively with problem situations and patrons in the library is an important area of concern for management” (270). One solution Gothberg illustrates is that librarians need to be more assertive when dealing with customers who behave inappropriately. She points out that too often difficult situations escalate because librarians do not want to confront people in a public place and discipline them for their improper behavior. Gothberg describes strategies for coping with several sorts of difficult customers and situations from hostile aggressive customers, to know-it-all experts, to silent customers.
Due to the increasing importance on customers, countless research studies have been conducted on customer satisfaction and user studies. In "The True Value of Customer Service", author Debbie Schachter states, “excellence in customer service lead to greater use of library services, better coordination with other departments, and a greater chance of ensuring the security of library funding” (8). She stresses in her article that customer service “may be the most critical factor in the information service value chain in any organization” (8).
The high degree of importance given to user studies, questionnaires, and customer surveys has raised questions about the validity of these approaches. George D’Elia’s research has indicated that the customer satisfaction construct is not always a clear indicator of whether library service is effective or ineffective. In "User Satisfaction With Library Service – A Measure of Public Library Performance?", D’Elia and Sandra Walsh surveyed public library customers and found that “the construct (user satisfaction construct) may be useful for diagnosing the performance of specific services within the library”, not library service in general.
With the advent of the internet many of the traditional library customers no longer use the library. According to Matthew L Saxton and John V. Richardson, library customers who seek reference service are, “increasingly composed of youth, senior citizens, and the economically disenfranchised, as more affluent members of the community have a growing range of opportunities to access information through the Internet at home, information systems provided by their employers, or fee-based information services” (6).
Recently, libraries have also been forced into competition with profit driven bookstores such as Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and Borders. These retailers have increased their profits by targeting customers through marketing and promotion techniques. Libraries have taken notice of strategies that bookstores utilize and have used some of the same techniques to try to draw back customers. Jeannette Woodward, author of Creating the Customer-Driven Library : Building on the Bookstore Model, encourages libraries to learn from and use some of the customer driven marketing and promotion techniques that bookstores use. Woodward believes that these techniques can be utilized to increase the number of customers that visit the physical library and check out library material. In “Focus on the Library Customer: Revelation, Revolution, or Redundancy?,” Diane Tobin Johnson also examines the choices libraries have in adopting a customer orientation, but finds that not all libraries would benefit from this approach.
Crum, N. J. (1969). The Librarian-Customer Relationship: Dynamics of Filling Requests for Information. Special Libraries, 60 (May/June): 269-277.
D'Elia, G. & Walsh, S. (1983). User Satisfaction with Library Service: A Measure of Public Library Performance? Library Quarterly, 53: 109-133.
Gothberg, H. M. (1987). Managing Difficult People: Patrons (and Others). Reference Librarian, 19: 269-283.
Green, S. (1876). Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers. American Library Journal, 1(2-3): 74-81.
Johnson, D. T. (1995). Focus on the Library Customer: Revelation, Revolution, or Redundancy. Library Trends, 43 (Winter), p.318-25.
Saxton, M. L. & Richardson Jr., J. V. (2002). Understanding Reference Transactions: Transforming an Art into a Science. New York: Academic Press.
Schachter, D. (2006). The True Value of Customer Service. Information Outlook, 10 (8): 8-9.
Weingand, D. E. (1997). Customer service excellence : A Concise Guide for Librarians. Chicago : American Library Association.
Woodward, J. A. (2005). Creating the Customer-Driven Library : Building on the Bookstore Model. Chicago : American Library Association.