Understanding intermediation in a digital environment: An exploratory case study

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Information Science and Technology


Barbara Kwasnik


Intermediation, Digital environment, Virtual reference desk, Information-seeking

Subject Categories

Library and Information Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


The Internet provides individuals with the opportunity to access unprecedented amounts of information on any given subject. However, there remain barriers to retrieving the best and most relevant documents. The present study focuses on processes of resolving user (versus technical) issues. Information system users have traditionally relied on expert intermediaries for resolving problems. Face-to-face encounters have been the traditional form of human-expert intermediation. Increasingly, however, information-provision services have begun to offer human-mediated information services through computer networks--especially the Internet--recognizing the potential advantages in overcoming barriers of time and space in user-intermediary communications. Despite the likely increase in this trend into the future, there remains at this point an inadequate understanding of the effectiveness of these systems.

The present study investigates intermediation in the context of an asynchronous text-based computer-mediated medium, such as e-mail and web-forms. The goal of the research is in describing and gaining a further understanding of the processes of intermediation. The main objectives are to identify the factors that might affect digital intermediation and to investigate how and under what circumstances these factors might affect digital intermediation. The research takes the form of an exploratory case study of a hospital library information service. The overall approach is naturalistic. Grounded theory provides a framework for data analysis. In order to elicit a rich and fully informed accounting of the phenomenon under investigation, the researcher interprets and relates the diverse human perspectives of the intermediaries, the users, and the researcher herself. This provides a basis for highlighting potentially conflicting, as well as corroborating, evidence.

The study contributes at both the conceptual and practical levels to an overall understanding of digital intermediation by producing a descriptive framework of analysis. Nine categories of factors potentially affecting digital intermediation are identified. These factors form three broad aspects of digital intermediation: media use, question negotiation and personal communication preference. The researcher also proposes directions for future research in the area of reference intermediation in a digital environment.


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