You Know, I Know, Don't Know

By Kate Sheehan |

Field trips in New England often revolve around hardship. And candy. As an elementary school student, I learned to make candles like the colonists did when they weren't busy starving to death or learning about corn. As a high school student, I watched a blacksmith (who would not break character to give us directions) sweat and work on a horseshoe for what felt like an eternity to my 16-year-old self. It's tough to be a settler, which is why historical attractions always sell fantastic anachronistic penny candy - it offsets the depression that would set in on the children who just spent three hours making a misshapen candle that will provide about twenty minutes of iffy light. And all that's before anyone bothered to mention the genocide sparked by the bonneted and buckled people all of our towns are named after.

I am, perhaps, remembering the wrong things from the educational diversions supplied by my parents and teachers. One of my favorite places to go was the Mark Twain House. There wasn't much candy, but the tour guides were funnier. Of course, the one nugget that has stayed with me since middle school is useless and probably not true (I haven't verified it, because I like it and don't want to lose it). Twain had three collies named You Know, I Know, and Don't Know.

I like this not only because I grew up with collies (and live with one still - of the Don't Know variety), but also because it's an apt metaphor for information management. Librarians are inherently interested more in what I think of as "You Know" information - we are less interested in being experts (that would be "I Know") and more interested in knowing where and how to access the expertise of others. We're experts in finding experts.

But what of Don't Know? My friend and colleague Sarah Ludwig recently declared that she is not a computer whiz (though we've worked together and she is definitely being too hard on herself) and zeroed in on the key to being tech savvy - lack of fear. When I was a brand new librarian (I did the math recently and realized I'm not new at all anymore), my coworkers always asked me where I got my "computer training." The assumption was that expertise was required. My standard answer "Oh, I've just always worked with computers" seemed to confirm the "new and young always means good with computers" assumption that I desperately wanted to break through.

My family had a Commodore 64 when I was in elementary school. It had about a billion parts that all had to be turned on and off in a specific order. I could never remember the order and usually got one of my parents to help me. But one day, I just went for it. And I did it wrong. I turned things off in the wrong order and I think I once left the cartridge deck (remember those?) on for an hour after I was done playing Lemonade Stand or Zork. Nothing bad happened. I eventually managed to retain the order of on-and-off for all of the components. The first time I had to reboot a server, I nearly hyperventilated. I learned to manage an Exchange server by googling a lot of my problems and asking for help when I was stuck. I don't think that's terribly unusual, especially in libraries, where sending someone to something as expensive as Exchange training probably isn't going to happen.

Yet librarians get hung up on Don't Know. The people who are willing to try things out, to see what works, to apply everyday problem solving skills to stuff that plugs in to the walls, and to learn on the fly become our computer whizzes. When I started in libraries, I also quickly discovered that fear leads us to assume the worst of the fearless. A coworker who I had a good relationship with asked for help with her computer. I sat down and started troubleshooting, only to get some aggravating Windows error. She assumed that my "ugh" was directed at her and began apologizing and getting a little defensive. I was completely surprised that someone who I regularly chatted with around the water cooler would assume I was annoyed at her because her computer was acting up. Even now, when I'm training librarians, I rarely answer a question without making some attempt to assure the questioner that their question is a good one or that they're not the only person confused by that particular something.

We are a profession devoted to the idea that not knowing something isn't a problem. Technophobia gets in the way and makes Don't Know a huge issue. People who can describe the exact conditions under which their car makes that weird banging noise for their mechanics call their IT folks to report that their email is simply "broken".

Don't Know isn't a terrible monster. It's just another dog, hanging out with I Know and You Know. It doesn't have sharper teeth or rabies and it won't pee on your floor any more than the other two. In my time as a librarian, I have spent a huge amount of my working hours reassuring people and trying to coax them away from focusing on their fear to focusing on learning and experimenting.

Cooper, confused. I called my dog a collie of the Don’t Know variety. He’s sweet and enthusiastic, but fundamentally clueless. For him, Don’t Know is a permanent condition. He’s sitting next to me, hoping I’m going to give him a cookie when I’m done writing this. When his toys get stuck underneath things, he barks at the furniture until I stop laughing and help him. He gets stuck in rooms and ties himself to trees. His problem solving skills are paltry, at best. Librarians are professional problem solvers and those skills don’t stop working when applied to technology. A reference interview isn’t all that different from troubleshooting. 

If you’re a library techie, you are likely familiar with the panic that interferes with your colleagues’ technological lives. If you think of yourself as falling in the nontechie end of the spectrum, take a step back and give that dog another look. Don’t Know just needs a few minutes on Google, some questions, and maybe a cookie to start looking an awful lot like I Know.