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While at the American Association for State and Local History Conference in Atlanta last week, one session made the point that while libraries have users, historical organizations count visitors. Visitation is a passive activity, while using is an activity: a participation where the public has a stake in the institution. Are people as passionate about local history as libraries? Should historical organizations start thinking of its public as users? Is there historical value in continuing to call our public visitors? Please elaborate.

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4 Responses to User or Visitor

  1. Mary Warner says:

    You’re right, the word "visitor" does seem passive. Once we developed our website further, I started calling some people "users," although we have long used the term "researchers." This is one of those hard-to-quantify things – classifying people who use our services in some way. Researchers tend to experience a bigger emotional impact from our services than visitors do, but they also invest the most by what they bring to their search. People are definitely as passionate about local history as they are about libraries. My experience has shown that there is much overlap in between the audiences. Those who regularly use libraries are also likely to seek out historical organizations and vice versa.


  2. Jeff Brand says:

    When I worked for the US Forest Service, we called individuals that recreated within a wilderness area as a user. When training for the National Park Service Seasonal Law Enforcement Academy in Ely, we referred to individuals as park visitors. I think by and large the terminology is relative to the organization. For instance, many people get out of the car since wilderness areas are roadless and "use" it for the recreational aspects that it provides. Since 95% of park visitors only see the 15% or so of the roaded areas in a park, in a national park you "visit" the park. That is the basic rationale for the name selection for the two federal organizations. What ever you call them, make sure that they are counted and that they feel appreciated for coming to your site.


  3. Mike Worcester says:

    We use the library-esque word "patron" to describe pretty much everybody that comes through the door or attends one of our programs, be they on or off-site. It implies that they are there to utilize something you have to offer. This could be passive, like browsing through your exhibit galleries. Or something more involved, like genealogical research (which we also track separately). Our web counter only counts only hits, so I have never been keen on using that stat to boost our attendance figures, though it can sound impressive to those who have never dealt with how counters "count".

    My guess is also that in five to seven years, we will again be having this conversation as the verbiage surrounding how we label visitors will have changed–again.


  4. Mary Warner says:

    Upon thinking about this more closely, I realized that we have lots of terms for people who use our museum. Here’s a list:


    You can even add volunteer, intern, staff, and board of directors to the list, because we’re users, too.

    Let’s not forget funders and grantors. Both use our museum in the sense of wanting to have successes they can point to in which their money was involved.

    I’m probably missing some terms, but you can see that we parse things out and there are slightly different definitions for these terms. One term does not fit all.


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