Common Knowledge

Why does the concept of common knowledge intrigue me, anyway? A friend and I met at the mall earlier tonight and passed a poster with an image of Winston Churchill on a standee. The image was labeled "Winston Churchill." My friend questioned whether he really needed to be identified. "Doesn't everybody know who Winston Churchill is?" Well, not necessarily, yet it is difficult to imagine scenarios in which people haven't seen a likeness of Winston Churchill beyond being too young to have taken WWII history in school yet. If you didn't pay attention, or don't watch the History Channel, or if your reading or news consumption doesn't bring you down the path of history, it is possible to not know what Winston Churchill looks like.

Yet, the assumption that everyone should know certain facts is a bit frustrating to me despite my expectation that most people would be able to identify Winston Churchill. At the reference desk, I have mild fear over questions that I don't know enough about to begin the search with a good (i.e., professional) starting place. Sure, Google can get me going on just about anything, but that approach is time-consuming and embarrassing. (I simply don't find myself in situations that require in-depth knowledge of reference sources very often, print or otherwise. I do my best to create opportunities to deepen my knowledge, but I am more apt to remember a specific or unique feature of a reference source or database if it is linked to a specific information need. Incidentally, this blog is one way for me to force myself to fine-tune my search strategies.) Mostly, I worry that I don't have enough of what I assume to be common knowledge, and I continuously strive to be someone who knows (at least) a little about a lot.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes a (not surprisingly) rather philosophical article on the phenomenon of Common Knowledge. (I love that it is presented as a 'phenomenon.') Common knowledge is a phenomenon which underwrites much of social life. In order to communicate or otherwise coordinate their behavior successfully, individuals typically require mutual or common understandings or background knowledge. So, maybe I shouldn't worry about whether I have the background knowledge tucked away in my brain for every single reference question I get. Maybe using Google or Dogpile is a fine way to find common keywords, and I should ease up.

I still don't understand why there was a picture of Winston Churchill in the mall in the first place, but hey. Whatever.

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