You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

Albert Einstein? Sophonisba Breckinridge? John Brunner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The depth and breadth of information available on the internet is wondrous. Here is an example of a very pertinent quotation I came across recently:

I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.

This saying expresses a fundamental insight into this age of vast knowledge bases and high-speed networks. The words were credited to Albert Einstein, but I cannot find any precise reference. Why is there so much junk and misinformation about quotations? The prevalence of inaccurate data makes it harder to find correct information. Can you trace this general saying?

Quote Investigator: This quotation is not listed in the key reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” [UQEI], and QI has been unable to find any substantive evidence connecting the saying to Einstein.

The idea does have a long history before the computer age. Here is an instance in 1914 in a periodical called “The Expositor and Current Anecdotes” [EXWI]:

Educated people are not those who know everything, but rather those who know where to find, at a moment’s notice, the information they desire.

This sentence appeared in an advertisement directed at clergymen concerning a book that could be used to organize clippings and references. Another example from that time period in 1917 was located by the top researcher Victor Steinbok in “The Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor” [PIAP]:

Someone has said that the cleverest people are not those who know everything, but those who know where to look for and find any information that is at the moment required. Which is only another way of saying that they have methodical minds and habits and know how and where to store their knowledge.

The educator and social reformer Sophonisba Breckinridge expressed the idea to a group of her students as recorded in 1958 [UNSP]:

When I was studying at the University of Chicago, Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, that great social welfare leader who was one of my teachers, once told the class of public welfare administration, “You don’t have to know everything, but you should learn how and where to find the things you need and want to know.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1968 the award-winning science fiction author John Brunner extrapolated several trends into the future in his influential work “Stand on Zanzibar”. In this novel a character named Donald described a very ambitious program of self-study to another character who reacted skeptically [SZJB]:

“Stop. You’ve defined an area of knowledge greater than an individual can cover in a lifetime.”

Donald explained that he was not planning to memorize large amounts of material:

“You don’t memorise log and sine tables; you buy a slide-rule or learn to punch a public computer!” A helpless gesture. “You don’t have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary.”

In 1970 Harold B. Finger, an electronics engineer working in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, presented a variant of the expression [EEHF]:

“Of course, you can’t have facts for everything. The same thing is true here: you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know enough to work out solutions or methods of attack.”

In 1975 the SF author John Brunner published “The Shockwave Rider” which included prescient descriptions of computer hacking and a computer “worm”. Brunner reprised the idea noted earlier in “Stand on Zanzibar” in this dystopian novel of the seventies [SRJB].

“Ah, you don’t have to know everything. You just have to know where to find it.”

In 1978 an article in Science Digest printed a variant of the saying that suggested using human-mediated assistance [SCDG]:

“She didn’t know the answers to a lot of questions, but she knew what she knew, and she never would hesitate to ask someone else for help. That’s what she taught us young doctors: you don’t have to know everything, because you can always ask someone who does know.”

In 2011 a YouTube video about “Avoiding Mistakes in Clothing Retail Business” offered the following advice [CRYT]:

But I read recently, you don’t have to know everything, you just have to know the person who knows everything. So be smart enough to hire the right person.

The GoodReads website has a page listing a version of this saying and crediting it to the illustrious physicist Albert Einstein [AEGR]:

I don’t need to know everything, I just need to know where to find it, when I need it

The webcomic xkcd published a two-panel illustration titled “Extended Mind” that did not contain a quotation similar to the one under investigation. But it did depict the dangers of relying on just-in-time knowledge [XKEM].

In conclusion, this general saying has a history that extends one-hundred or more years into the past. Indeed, it may be considerably older, but the phrasing may be different. Also, there is no evidence that Einstein ever spoke or wrote this saying.

(The right-hand illustration at the beginning of this article depicts the Memex concept of Vannevar Bush. The Memex was a device for storing and interlinking information. None of the quotations above are directly related to the Memex, but the picture is thematically connected to this post.)

(The query above was written by QI. Many thanks to  Ioan Tenner Geneva who sent the question that initiated the exploration of this topic. Ioan Tenner Geneva has a website with the subtitle “A conversation about worldly wisdom” here.)

[UQEI] 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)

[EXWI] 1914-1915, The Expositor and Current Anecdotes, Volume 16, Indexing and Filing, [Advertisement for Wilson Index Company of Lynn, Massachusetts] Page XX, Column 2, F. M. Barton, Publishing, Cleveland, Ohio. (Google Books downloadable book; Quotation appears two pages after page 744 on a page labeled XX) link

[PIAP] 1917 October 20, The Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor, Insurance Institute of London: President’s Address, Start Page 688, Quote Page 690, Column 3, Buckley Press, London, England.  (HathiTrust) link  link

[UNSP] 1958 June, United Nations Review, Dona Alicia de UNICEF by Alice Shaffer, Start Page 15, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Volume 4, Number 12, Published by United Nations Department of Public Information, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SZJB] 1968 [2011 reprint], Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Page 43, Orb Book, Tom Doherty Associates, New York. (Verified in Google Preview of 2011 reprint) link

[EEHF] 1970 March, The Electronic Engineer, “Is There an Operation Breakthrough for Electronic Engineers?” by John McNichol, Start Page 46, Quote Page 48-49, Volume 29, Number 3, Chilton, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on microfilm)

[SRJB] 1975, The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, Page 75, A Del Rey Book, Ballantine Books, New York. (First Ballantine edition 1976; Verified on paper in Third Printing 1978)

[SCDG] 1978 July, Science Digest, Volume 84, The House Call: A Chance To Know the Whole Patient, Start Page 42, Quote Page 43,  Science Digest, Des Moines, Iowa. (Verified on paper)

[AEGR] GoodReads website, Albert Einstein: Quotable Quote. (Accessed at goodreads.com on April 2, 2012) link

[CRYT] 2011 June 15, YouTube video, Title:”Avoiding Mistakes in Clothing Retail Business – as part of the expert series by GeoBeats.” (Accessed at youtube.com on April 2, 2012) link

[XKEM] xkcd webcomic by Randall Munroe, date unknown, Title: Extended Mind. (Accessed at xkcd.com on April 2, 2012) link

5 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

  1. A quote is a quote if you quote

    Dear Quote Investigator,

    Thank you for your quality work. I am impressed by the depth you went to, to find who really wrote or said “You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It.”

    It seems to me a valuable quote, a deep thought that can make people wiser; I will use it in one of my posts, with your reference.

    It is not in usage yet to senf flowers to internet sites when they contribute with value, as you do by keeping great authors alive. Instead I coined for you (I believe I did, but please check) two “quotables”, a compliment to express in short the work you do:

    “A quote is a quote, if you quote” If not it’s stollen feathers

    or

    “You know a quote when you know its parents”

    Use them freely or forget them as you like.

    The best to you,
    Ioan Tenner, Geneva
    http://wisdom.tenner.org/

  2. John L Spouge: Thanks for sharing that valuable quotation on the theme.

  3. I’m guessing this is a misattribution owing to an authentic related quote. It appears that Einstein did say “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” in a 1921 NY Times interview, according to a Wikiquote entry: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein#1920s.

  4. Lance: Thanks for visiting and leaving a valuable comment. I have examined the quote to which you have pointed. When I checked the May 18, 1921 New York Times I found that Einstein’s comments differed from those reported in 1947 and in WikiQuote. Einstein was speaking in German and there may be more than one translation. I have looked for other versions of the quote in newspapers that discussed the event, e.g., in the Washington Post and Boston Globe. In the future when I learn more I do plan to add something to this post.

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