December 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 6 »

From the Medici to Middle America: The Evolution of Patronage

November 17, 2017
Jane Hanna, Skokie Public Library

Our lead article this month tackles one of the more difficult aspects of working with the public, and I hope it leads to further discussion and substantive action at every library in the state. But while we’re considering the raw feeling that the subject has rightly opened up in all of us, I also want to pause for a moment and appreciate the unique importance of patron relationships. As someone very new to the profession (and who hasn’t been to library school), I may be able to appreciate the enormity of that which might get taken for granted by those more seasoned in the field.
My background is in museums. My earliest memories have to do with the thrill of visiting mummies and masterpieces, so working in museums for years as a digital strategist fulfilled a childhood dream. But then a content strategy position opened up at the Skokie Public Library. I thought that museums and libraries were basically the same thing: big repositories full of stuff that is maintained for the public good. But my experience in museums did not prepare me for the incredible reciprocity that is so fundamental to the library world.

Most museums use “guest” to refer to their visitors. It’s polite and implies an expectation of service provided. But it also establishes an immediate power imbalance. If you’re a guest in my house, you’re expected to behave according to my instructions, you mustn’t touch anything without permission, and you will defer to my expertise. That is often how it can feel to visit a museum as well: you listen quietly as experts talk at you or you read the interpretive labels they’ve written, you shuffle quietly from object to object keeping your hands in your pockets, and you don’t feel like the space belongs to you or that you’ve been invited to participate in a dialogue. (It should be noted that children’s museums, science centers, and many other museums take a far more dynamic approach to learning and audience engagement, and I acknowledge that I’m somewhat unfairly generalizing here based on more traditional organizations.)

“Customer” and “user” are equally problematic words because they shift the power imbalance the other way; you’re just here to take stuff from me and I’m passively providing it without much stake of my own in the experience, other than the money that I hope to collect from you. Sadly, museums (like many libraries) tend to be so underfunded that the business operations are solely focused on increasing revenues, and everything else becomes secondary. What’s important is selling the one-time ticket, not cultivating a relationship. Again, the very words “guest,” “customer,” and “user” imply a temporary arrangement that ends when the visit or transaction is completed. Museums also use “member,” but it carries the strong smell of a sales quota and a manufactured exclusiveness that affords access to perks which are purchased only by those who can afford the price. How nice for them.

I know that all of these words are used in our field too, and that there have been numerous debates over the proper terminology for library visitors. But for me, the word “patron” is a revelation. It puts me in mind of the Medici family or other wealthy benefactors of old, who gave generously to those they believed were contributing to the greater good through their creative and scientific endeavors. What their investments made possible had a global impact from which we have all benefitted. Now, few of us serve districts occupied by fortunes of that size, but to me that makes the fact of our residents’ patronage that much more noble. By simply living where they do, they make our work possible. It is not a direct exchange of money for services rendered, but rather an investment in making the world better for everyone. In modern usage, “patron” is a word that instantly puts us all on equal footing. It means that we rely on each other and support each other and give each other the tools we need to help one another for the long term. Suddenly it’s not about a transaction, but about sharing, empowering, and appreciating.

This is the key difference between museums and libraries. Yes, both are buildings full of stuff, but libraries are full of your stuff!You made it possible and it’s truly at your disposal. A child may go to a museum and be inspired to become an archaeologist because of what he or she sees, but it’s in a library that he or she will find the actual pragmatic assistance and resources to tangibly pursue that dream. Museums give you information. Libraries give you the power to use information. And librarians are there to help you, because they recognize the investment that has been made in them, so that they can offer their assistance in return. I don’t know of any other industry that conducts business in such a mutually equitable way.

So, while there are no doubt many challenges to serving the public, for me the fact that we are concerned with cultivating genuine patron relationships at all is something worth shouting about. Perhaps librarians are drawn to the work because this is an obvious value to them right from the start. But for me, and others on the “outside”—even those working elsewhere in the nonprofit and cultural sector—it is a unique concept, worthy of reverence and not to be taken for granted.

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