Customer Is The Purpose


The absolute total purpose and focus of the 21st Century Library Model is the customer. Customer centered library services that meet the information needs of the 21st Century customer will result in any library remaining relevant to its community.

This premise includes an expressed challenge – knowing your 21st Century customer. The 21st Century customer is NOT the 20th Century patron. The 21st Century customer should be considered “new” – the Millennial Customer – if you will.

World renown management expert Peter F. Drucker is the originator of the idea that the customer is the purpose.

A company’s primary responsibility is to serve its customers, to provide the goods or services which the company exists to produce. Profit is not the primary goal but rather an essential condition for the company’s continued existence. Other responsibilities, e.g., to employees and society, exist to support the company’s continued ability to carry out its primary purpose. marketing crossing

Public libraries have been slow to figure out that the 21st Century customer does not need 20th Century library services. School, academic and special libraries have been dealing with the new Millennial Customer for several years. Unless we want to see brick & mortar libraries go the way of the rotary dial telephone, the transistor radio, and the cathode ray tube, we need to understand the Millennial Customer and adapt library services to meet their interests, because they do not appear to have library service “needs”, and may not seek services from public libraries!

Five Generations of Library Customers
There are The Greatest Generation, Silent Generation (often lumped in with the Greatest Generation), Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y or Millennials (as they have labeled themselves). Obviously, since each was born and raised under VERY different times and circumstances, there are significant differences in each generation, and, a DRASTIC difference between the Greatest Generation and the Millennials – DRASTIC in the sense of being very different library customers! (The graphic below represents a brief overview of where the generations fall within the three types of library customers.)

The Digital Fugitive
This segment of library customers includes the Greatest Generation and Silent Generation, those customers over 65 and who can generally be considered 20th Century customers. Their interests are typical of 20th Century library services – books, newspapers, leisure and recreational print material, a quiet place to read and socialize. Most are not Digital Immigrants, but those who are use a limited amount of technology by necessity, like Internet and email.

Digital Immigrant
This segment of library customers begins the serious Millennial Customer who has adopted technology into their lives – work and leisure. They are the Baby Boomers who are just this year turning 65, and are probably more of an enigma than the other generations, because they span a broad range of background, interests and activities.

In middle age, they realized that they needed to become “life long learners” because their high school education wouldn’t get them very far in the last 20 years of the 20th Century. Technology was changing so fast that they had to learn it to keep up and retain their place in society and the workplace. As library customers, Boomers represent virtually all library services, traditional and cutting edge. Older Boomers are Digital Immigrants by necessity more than desire, and they have typical traits of Digital Immigrants in that they still use punctuation in their emails, IMs and even tweets.

Digital Native
I place this discussion of GenX in the Digital Native category because this is THE generation that has truly mastered the art of adapting to change. They have straddled today’s technology in an amazing way, yet still remember being their parents “TV remote”. Their first introduction to technology was sitting on the floor in front of the TV and changing the channel, and now they proficiently handle the five remotes on the coffee table in their home, or more likely figured out the “universal” remote.

Generation X people are mostly Digital Immigrants by birth, and for the most part represent those now reaching middle age. GenX statistically holds the highest education levels when looking at age groups. Because the technological, educational and societal changes have been so significant between their own childhood and now their children’s, none of the Baby Boomer models fit for the GenX generation. They must reinvent everything from parenting to career paths without a model. While GenX is often called the “microwave generation” due to their desire for instant gratification, they still struggle with their children who sit in a home with three different gaming systems, multiple computers, and 500 TV channels, and complain that they’re bored.

GenX work in the vice grip of two generations. One that has stayed in the work force longer than expected, and therefore created a bottleneck in upward mobility. The other generation with better technology skills is breathing down their necks, with their over-indulged upbringing, where everyone who participates gets a trophy, and wants everything yesterday.

Since most GenX did not grow up with technology (as we understand it today), but were exposed to it early in their late teen and early adult life, and have that uncanny adaptability toward technology, many could qualify as Digital Natives, but are still technically Digital Immigrants. Fortunately, they did not acquire the aversion traits of their parents regarding technology, so they can all be considered Digital Natives in their behavior.

Generation Y (considered to be born from 1982 through 2001) are so labeled as a follow on to the previous Generation X, but self labeled as Millennials (wanting to disassociate themselves with the previous GenX). Most distinctively, they are indeed a “new” generation of learner, consumer, citizen and library customer – the Millennial Customer.

Millennials are typified by their use of instant communication technologies, are also somewhat peer-oriented (which means they prefer the opinions of anonymous peers to that of “experts”), are into self-expression and acceptance, are more culturally tolerant than previous generations, have an inclination for delaying some of the rites of passage into adulthood, and trend toward living with their parents for longer than previous generations. They are generally considered the “Trophy Kids”, due to the “everybody’s a winner” approach to group activities, and as a result tend toward generational consensus building. They like to work collaboratively, and prefer to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace. They also believe in “doing” as opposed to “learning to do”.

Jason Ryan Dorsey, The “Gen Y Guy” presents an awesome overview of the Millennial Generation.

Here is another perspective of the Millennials from themselves.

This is the generation public librarians should focus on and study, not because there are 60+ million of them, but because they are such a different consumer that in order to address their library service interests, public libraries will have to understand them, and literally take services to them. (School and academic librarians are getting first-hand experience with GenY kids every day.) They do not recognize much, if any, “need” for library services, and seldom, if ever, seek “traditional” services from public libraries.

All of the older generations will progressively have fewer consumers of fewer library services, whereas the future belongs to the young. It is understood that Millennials are into email, texting, IMing, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and whatever the latest electronic means of communication happens to be. They communicate using social media technology, and everything is “remote”. They generally only visit the library to collaborate and socialize. They have integrated technology into their life and it is now a necessity for them, because they grew up with technology and the Internet, and are “Digital Natives”.

The successful 21st Century Library will provide services to their 21st Century Millennial Customer, because they know who they are and what they want. The 21st Century customer is NOT the 20th Century patron.

More to come…………………
See A 21st Century Library Model

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Customer Is The Purpose

  1. Angela

    At 51, I am at the younger end of the Baby Boomer generation. I am naturally intuitive and have an aversion to instruction booklets and owner’s manuals– a plus when it comes to trying to keep up with the next thing coming in the technological wave. On the other hand, it still feels more like trying than keeping up. My work as a library associate means that I have to put forth the effort (and this always pays off); but sometimes I just want to pause and catch my breath.

    • Thanks. LOTS of us can identify with that feeling.
      But I do have to empathize with the GenXers who “work in the vice grip of two generations. One that has stayed in the work force longer than expected, and therefore created a bottleneck in upward mobility. The other generation with better technology skills is breathing down their necks”. I’m concerned about what may happen when the dam of retirements finally breaks.

  2. Wonderful article! There’s only one sentence that troubles me:

    “All of the older generations will progressively have fewer consumers of fewer library services, whereas the future belongs to the young.”

    Although I’m sure it’s not how you intended it, that sentence has more than a whiff of, “Step aside, old lady” in it. I’m a Gen X-er who is not only a librarian, but also a passionate library client. And since I have no intentions of going anywhere anytime soon, I’m going to demand both new-jack and old-school service for a long time to come. “Progressively” is going to be rather slow, if the elder generations – who, by the way, still have most of the disposable income at their fingertips – are any indication, so please don’t write off our peccadilloes just yet…

    Leigh Anne

    • Yes, and people seem to forget that.

      I also wonder: what about the generations born before 1945? Many of those I know don’t have access to computers, the internet and other modern communications technologies, and many simply do not want to. Moreover, these people will still be living for another 10-30 years.

      Even some of us so-called “millenials” (and as a later twentysomething I object to being lumped in with people who were born after the invention of the Web) occasionally use the library to actually seek out books either for our own pleasure or for research, and know the best of both worlds as much as the older “Gen Xers”. I personally do not want to see libraries as little more than glorified internet cafes/community centres which might just happen to have a few books lying around

      • Unfortunate but true. Libraries will die or survive on their customer service.
        In the US it seems like many Silent and Great Generation folks are getting into techology in order to stay in touch with their families who are spread all over. I personally know a dozen of that age who email and even text, so they have figured out it’s sink or swim. I think everyone objects to being catagorized in a generation because it seems that early Gen-Y are more like Boomers, and late-Gen Y are more like early-Gen X, so it’s hard to describe people as the same who are 20 years apart. Maybe we need to qualify the generations as “early” or “late” or Gen-X.1 and Gen-X.2 for first and second half. Interesting concept.
        Thanks for your observations.

  3. Missie

    Let’s not forget the need for human interaction. Mom’s LOVE to bring their babies in for singing, dancing and stories at the library. So before we expose infants and new generations to techno-rays we are still engaging them with good ol’ fashion fun at the public library. Yes, demands are changing but marketing strategies will keep us in business.

  4. Mark

    Some interesting thoughts here and I appreciate the attempt to differentiate between the different types of general needs and methodologies of differing generations. A couple observations.
    Longer lifespans and intergenerational interaction will force libraries to not abandon traditional resources, particularly print resources, as print (a first generation technology) is still quite effective for delivering content.
    Technology-based early learning has been shown to be a false path for creating literate, creative thinkers from ages 0-6. Cutting edge libraries are replacing their “child computer labs” with interactive learning centers, focusing on the six criticial early literacy skills. Caregiver interaction and the socialization which occurs during play/learning does not happen during “screen time” activities.
    Libraries will need to adapt, change and continue to add content and resources. Delivery of content through new resources will be a challenge, but also an exciting adventure. Our goals need to insure all customers and community needs are engaged in the discussion of our purpose.

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