Unfortunately, their results -- and their final papers -- tend to be heavily slanted toward the knowledge and opinion in magazines, on Web sites and other resources that were first to put their offerings online. Knowledge not digitized and posted is more often than not ignored by students these days.
Books? Ha -- if Amazon.com didn't happen to publish an excerpt, it used to be off the table for most college students.But all that has now changed.
Go to Google and you'll see a line that says "Imagine all the world's books at your fingertips. Google Book Search." Click on the link, and you'll get a page to sign up for the Google Book Search Google Group, and also search for books already posted.
If you type in a normal search, Google now offers to show you the results for the same search from Google Book Search.
The service, which until Friday was called "Google Print," is "beta," but I don't even know what that means anymore. Google is feverishly (and controversially) scanning books at a mind-numbing clip. Huge numbers of new books are coming on line every day.
Some of the books show just sample pages, others are available in their entirety, depending on copyright status.
Fifteen years ago and before, students generally used for research the relatively tiny collections at their own university libraries. More recently, they've partly ignored those collections in favor of whatever happened to be online.
Suddenly, the quality of the libraries has been combined with the speed and accuracy of Google searches to bring students the best of both worlds. And, of course, the other factor is the sheer number of works available, which has now increased by several orders of magnitude.
Instead of painstakingly slogging through a card catalog, then hoofing it over to the shelves, scanning actual book bindings, then flipping through each candidate book to see if it might be relevant, students will simply type in relevant search terms in Google, then browse any of thousands of books for the best.
It's also a great leveler. Students and researchers at Slime Rock College will have access to many of the same works as people at Harvard and Cambridge -- as will non-students.
What does this mean for libraries? Well, fewer students will use libraries in the physical sense. And when those doing research do come in, they will come armed with a list of the specific books they're looking for.
It also means that librarians will be able to use Google Book Search themselves, and will be among the service's most skilled users.
Google Book Search changes everything for everybody, but especially for students. It's the biggest thing to happen to academic research -- and humanity -- since Gutenberg's Bible.
How did Gutenberg's Bible change everything? Dude, look, it up!