Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Library & Information Science


Dr. Anabel Quan-Haase


Serendipity, the word used to describe an unexpected encounter with information, people, or objects, has drawn much scholarly attention since its 1754 coinage by Horace Walpole. Historians commonly use this term when describing unexpected encounters during their research. However, historians have also been shown to be meticulous, organized researchers whose work is unlikely to contain elements that are unexpected. This thesis is an investigation of serendipity as it is recognized, defined, and experienced by historians in both physical and digital environments. Article One presents a grounded theory analysis of 20 interview transcriptions, Article Two presents a combination of grounded theory, content analysis, and narrative analysis of historians’ responses to an online survey, and Article Three summarizes the quantitative responses to the same survey, but focuses on digital environments. In Article One we found that historians frequently used active verbs to describe serendipity, and concluded that agency plays a prominent role in these experiences. In Article Two, responses from 142 participants reinforce the importance of agency, demonstrating that active research methods lead them to these serendipitous encounters. Article Three reports on the features of digital environments that historians found to support serendipity, including those that encourage exploration, connect people, have options for keyword searching, and highlight potentially relevant links. Taken together, these articles comprise a thesis that advances our current understanding of serendipity. Contributions to the field of LIS include acknowledging the role of agency in serendipitous encounters, and the use of multi-method analysis for investigating serendipity in a single population.