Google is digitizing books and articles and providing excerpts in their search results. The project is called Google Print. While the entire book or article is digitized, only a few pages per search are available, and printing and copying are disabled. So this is essentially just a way of browsing through the book to see if you want to buy it. Details of the project are available at the Google Print website, http://print.google.com/.
Search expert Tara Calishain has written a neat little search for the pilot program, available at her ResearchBuzz site at http://www.researchbuzz.org/archives/002027.shtml. She also has written about the continuation of the project, and the problems from a searcher's point of view at http://www.researchbuzz.org/archives/002056.shtml. She reports that searching for "books about X" with X being your subject will reliably bring a few books to the top of the search results (under News). So a search for books about "distance education" on Google brings up:
Distance Education Evolution - edited by Dominique Monolescu, Catherine Schifter, ... - 326 pagesClicking on the title brings me to a page seemingly chosen for the number of times my search words are used: in this case, a page of references. I can view a couple pages forward and back from the resulting page. I can also view the table of contents, index, and a synopsis (About this book) which includes a search link for reviews (most of which go to booksellers like Amazon.) At this point I can also do a search for another term, such as library, in the "Search within this book" box, and get a list of pages on which my term is used. There is a limit on the number of pages you can view, so this would be good for checking a citation, or getting an idea of how often a subject is covered within the book, but not for actually reading. Which is, of course, the idea.
At this point, I might click on the Amazon link, then on one of the Library Lookup Bookmarklets I have installed and see if we have this book. Southern does have this book, so I can now stroll down to LC5803.C65 D545 2004 and get it off the shelf.