Use of human intermediation in information problem-solving: A users' perspective

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Information Transfer


Barbara Kwasnik


Digital reference services, Human intermediation, Information problem-solving, Users

Subject Categories

Cognitive Psychology | Databases and Information Systems | Library and Information Science


Human intermediation is a central issue for information professionals who have been striving to provide better service in ever changing environments. However, existing models and findings provide little understanding of what tasks people request of human intermediaries or why and in what situations people use human intermediaries. This is because existing research has captured human intermediation mainly from the information professionals' rather than the users' perspective, and therefore only partially the information problem solving (IPS) tasks requested of intermediaries, merely in the context of using a service or source without fully taking into consideration the external (social and environmental) situations related to users' IPS processes. Because of the gap in our understanding, this research inquired into the underlying factors of human intermediation by using existing research findings and models representing information professionals' viewpoints as an initial framework to capture a users' perspective.

The study followed an exploratory approach and used a naturalistic research design in order to capture tasks requested of human intermediaries and users' internal and external situations focusing on the use of human intermediation within users' naturally occurring IPS processes. The study collected data from clients of the AskERIC Question Answering Service who recently made requests of AskERIC by a series of telephone interviews using a modified critical incident technique. Interview data were analyzed using a top-down strategy of modified constant comparative technique to develop a conceptual model that identified potentially significant dynamic factors in using human intermediation, as well as associations among them from the users' perspective.

While the final conclusion regarding relationships between variables awaits future research, this study helps to generate hypotheses to be tested in future research. The conceptual model offers improved understanding of systematic relationships between goals and situational variables within people's opportunistic information behavior. This improved understanding provides researchers with potentially important situational factors to be incorporated into future research, while offering practitioners guides toward better information services and system design.

Information problem solving processes are found to be very complex, particularly when involving other people including human intermediaries. This research made an important contribution toward a better understanding of the complexity.


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