Can You Ever Use the Phrase “I Don’t Know”?

There was a conversation at my workplace the other day that I want to pose as a question to my readership: should a librarian ever use the phrase “I don’t know” when trying to help a library member? My position is that the phrase can be used only with a qualifier; as in, that there is a solution, advice, or suggestion as to know to find out. (For example, “I don’t know but I know someone to ask” or “I don’t know but there might be a database that has an answer”.) Only rarely that the phrase be used without additional content and only in a situation where you don’t know and you don’t even know where to begin to search. Considering the existence of impossible reference questions (insert your own experience being asked one here), I think it is a very human admission and puts you in a sympathetic position with the questioner.

The other position in the conversation was that the phrase should never be uttered, period. Any other phrase that segues into searching should be used (“Let me check on that”, etc.) but never an admission of a lack of knowledge. The idea (as I saw it) is to focus the library member on that fact that you are working to find out the answer rather than a lack of personal knowledge. (I’m probably not explaining this as well, but since it’s not my side of the argument, I’m not terribly obligated to do so.)

What do you think? Can you ever use the phrase “I don’t know”?  Have you ever said it?

[Addendum: I asked my friends on the Library Society of the World Friendfeed this question earlier. You can see their responses here.]

19 thoughts on “Can You Ever Use the Phrase “I Don’t Know”?

  1. From a customer/service user’s point of view, I’d rather someone admit they don’t know the answer to my question than not, so long as they then take another constructive step (asking a colleague, checking a database, searching the catalogue, telling me the right person to talk to, etc). I agree that “I don’t know” shouldn’t be the end of an interaction, but that it naturally leads to solving a problem in a different way.

    From a library assistant’s perspective: I don’t think library users necessarily expect staff to know *everything*, but are generally pleased when library staff are helpful and willing to spend a bit of time on their query. I also agree with Katy S from the linked thread who mentions that it can be a good opportunity to show the steps you might go through to answer a research question.

  2. I’m doing my fieldwork on the reference desk at the university library this semester so I have given this question a great deal of thought. When I first got to the desk, this was one of the hardest things for me to do; admitting that I could not find the answer was to admit defeat! Reference at the academic library differs a good deal from the public library as its assumed that we’ll need to search through a database or two to help. Our goals also differ, I’d imagine, since we are tasked with teaching patrons to use the resources on their own.

    As I’ve gotten more confident on the desk, I’ve found that it actually seems to help the process along when I admit that I am stumped. It demonstrates that it’s okay to be frustrated by the research process and that it happens to everyone – even “The Librarian”. I agree with you, though, that it’s important not to leave it there. If we’ve already tried a few options with no luck, at that point I will usually offer to keep trying more options with them or offer to make the patron an appt with a subject specialist at the school. A flat “I don’t know” without any options of things to try would be right out!

  3. I don’t see any problem with saying “I don’t know”, as long as, as you suggest, you follow it up with something constructive. Of course, sometimes you get queries for which there is genuinely no answer, so sometimes you need to say “I don’t know” at the end of a transaction too! I’ve found, in my own field at least (law), users don’t mind hearing “I don’t know” as long as I can explain the steps I have taken to try to find an answer.

  4. I’ve used it. Mainly after we’ve explored all options and I still can’t find an answer. It usually comes out of my mouth *after* a patron has started demanding of me ridiculous things like “why won’t so-and-so friend me on Facebook?!?”

    • yes! In the same vein, I’ve said “I don’t know” when a patron has forgotten their email User ID, password, and the answers to their secret questions. And they won’t admit that they possibly could have gotten any of those things wrong. Since I haven’t been able to locate a phone number for Yahoo! customer service, I am forced to admit that I don’t know how to help them.

      • Exactly. Under almost all circumstances, I would use “I don’t know” with a qualifier. However, there have been a couple times where I use an equivalent of “I don’t know” when it’s personal information that I wouldn’t be able to find. For example, someone looking for a non-relative’s medical records in a rehab program or someone else looking to sign into a bank account that where they don’t have an account number. I’ll do my best to explain the institution’s policies and get them the phone numbers they will need to call to talk to someone, but I, personally, won’t be able to get them what they want.

  5. I don’t know why anyone–librarian, doctor, lawyer, engineer, whoever–would hesitate to say “I don’t know.” We are librarians, not databases. Just because part of our job is finding information doesn’t mean that we are always successful. I also don’t know anyone who would stop with just saying, “I don’t know.” It should always be part of a larger answer.

  6. “I don’t know” is a valid answer; our job is to help people find things, not know all the answers. How that can be phrased may differ according to the question (as you mention, referring to databases or other experts).

    On the flip side, some of the biggest stress/frustration I’ve seen library staff express (without realizing it) is when they don’t know the answer, easily and quickly. I’ve seen them get angry at others (never the patrons!) because “no one told me that” or “how was I supposed to know it.” Or, with anything tech related, “I don’t own x/ didn’t get training”.

    My attitude is : chill. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know….let me find out/ask/etc.”

  7. Gosh, I think “I don’t know” can be a great answer! Like you, I wouldn’t stop there — I don’t think any library query, to people or computers, should stop with a blank wall. But I’m informed by my education background here, and I think it can be really useful for learners to see that the “experts” don’t know everything, and how they handle it. One of the things that makes us experts is we have good skills for handling “I don’t know” in our domains of expertise, and I think modeling how we work through that can be extremely useful from an information-literacy-instruction perspective.

  8. I don’t know is an admission of defeat. Coming from an IT background, I refuse to be beaten by a machine when it comes to making one work/repairs/whatever. In that vein, I have only been beaten to the point once, where I had to say I don’t know why it’s not working. I found out after the fact that the Macbook Pro in question has a sensor on the motherboard to protect the electronics in the event of a fall, after which the sensor is commonly fried.

    I only admitted the “I don’t know” after I had exhausted all possible avenues available to me at the time, and I use that approach in every reference question I receive. The information is out there, it’s just a matter of being stubborn enough to find it!

  9. When working reference, if I don’t know but think that the answer might be found in a database I tend to go with “I don’t know. Let’s find out!” On any issue that is going to require another person to help, I think “I don’t know. Let me find you someone who might know” is a good response. I think I don’t know is a perfectly legitimate response, but should always be used with a follow up.

    • “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”. I say that all the time! It is a learning opportunity for me, but more importantly, the patron. Ideally, I would like the patron to see how I find the answer, understand how I got there, and be able to duplicate that result the next time they have a similar question. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

  10. I often say ‘I don’t know, let’s see what we can find”. People want information on topics that are way outside my realm of knowledge (and sometimes on things I don’t really want to know about!)

  11. I recently (June) retired from a 25-year career as a reference librarian in a large public library system. I said “I don’t know but let’s see what we can find” (or a variant of that phrase) countless times. To me, saying “I don’t know…” is much more legitimate than acting as if you know a factual answer when you actually don’t. It has always seemed to me that a librarian who can’t say “I don’t know…” works from a hierarchical viewpoint rather than in collaboration with the information seeker.

  12. Pingback: Notable – 10.15.11 | The Digital Immigrant

  13. “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” ~Socrates
    If you can not or will not utter the phrase “i don’t know” when it fits you are being deceptive and at least a bit egotistical. I would guess that anyone who insists that they never need to say “I don’t know” is very guilty of wishful thinking. I find people who can never admit they don’t know everything one the most annoying types on the planet. I don’t care what the circumstances are, admit what you don’t know .

  14. I have no compunctions about saying “I don’t know,” followed with a promise to do what I can to find out. If the reference question is thorny enough, I’ll even walk people through my search strategies, showing them what I tried that didn’t work so we can focus on trying new approaches that might work.

    I think that, as information professionals, it’s not our job to know everything, but it is our job to do our best to find out.

  15. Contrary to popular opinion, Librarians don’t know everything, we just know where to find it.

    Saying ‘I don’t know’ is perfectly acceptable. It’s also frequently comforting – how many patrons come up to us and begin with “I know this is a stupid question but…”

    When patrons do that, I often say I don’t know just to reassure them that their question isn’t stupid and to hopefully encourage them to approach again us in the future.

  16. On the occasion when someone asks a thorny technical question in one of my computer classes, I will ask for a way to contact them when I find out, and will sometimes even say, “I don’t know. Let’s see what *this* does!” or “Let’s see what Help says!” in a spirit of exploration I hope to model for my patrons. If someone asks me for their email password, I tell them we don’t have that information and don’t ever want to know it. But, yeah, just stopping at “I don’t know” (as I have heard colleagues do) is just wrong. There are always ways to find out, unless it’s something we can’t legally do or there are safeguards built to ensure we can’t. And don’t get me started on referring to other people who may not know or even exist.

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