AkLA 2007: Embrace Customers, Abandon Victimhood

This is the last of my postings about the 2007 Alaska Library Association annual conference held February 22-25 in Juneau, Alaska. Appropriately, it is a posting about our endnote.

The talk was titled Reinventing the Customer-Centered Library: 12 new steps for 2007. The presenter was Karen Hyman (hyman AT sjrlc.org) of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative. Believe me, you want Ms. Hyman for a conference speaker. She is the most unflappable person I have seen speak. Unfortunately her microphone kept cutting in and out, but Ms. Hyman kept in good humor the entire time and did not disparage the tech people. A model of grace in difficult circumstances.

Her content was great too. She did something I didn't think possible. Get me to accept the idea of library users as customers and not as patrons. I actually thought about titling this post "How I learned to quit worrying and use the word customer", but restrained myself.

Now maybe you've seen these two definitions side by side before, but I had not before seeing Ms Hyman's presentation:

Patron - One that supports, protects, or champions someone or something, such as an institution, event, or cause; a sponsor or benefactor: a patron of the arts.

Customer - One that buys goods or services.

Ms. Hyman suggested that a library user was someone who has prepaid our services with their tax dollars.

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially since a minority of the users of most libraries can truly be described as protectors, champions, and sponsors. Friends' groups, sure. But not the rank and file of library users. I believe the majority are sympathetic, but champions? Maybe Subarctic Mama.

So, I'm going to try and make an effort to refer to library users as customers and see if that changes my attitude about how I promote/market library services.

The other big insight I liked, more for others than for me. Her step 5 of 12 is Abandon Victimhood. Why should we avoid victimhood? Ms. Hyman gives five reasons that make sense to me:


  • Obscures facts.
  • Is powerless.
  • Is personal.
  • Saps your energy.
  • Takes you nowhere.

While I will refuse to offer specifics, I have seen victimhood in libraries and it's not pretty. But abandoning victimhood is good advice for many people and groups, including the peace and freedom movement. How much energy that could be used in education and constructive alternatives is wasted on hating the President or our current system? Too much in my view. And it's because too many in the opposition movement have made it personal.

But back to libraries. After offering 12 steps for the year, Ms. Hyman concluded with five things all of us librarians can do today:

  1. Look at the rules; get rid of most of them and restate the rest in a positive way.
  2. Look at what people want (and will want) and find ways to deliver it. Ask them and listen when they answer.
  3. "Walk through" your building and every service and fix what doesn't work for the customer.
  4. Incorporate customer service into every decision and problem-solving process.
  5. Treat every customer like a person.

So, that's the end of AkLA 2007. We're small, but we're mighty! Thanks to all of our speakers, outside and homegrown for giving us all a fantastic educational and networking opportunity. I'll hopefully see my fellow Alaskans in Fairbanks next year!