Every year as new grad students come back for further coursework they comment on how much research and information have changed in recent years.
These documents are fascinating reads (though not intended as light reading) as they show the development of a researcher and his/her research through the process from idea evaluation through contemplation of impact and potential next steps. They also include wonderful, comprehensive literature reviews of value to anyone taking on a research project.
Just as everything else is going digital, so are dissertations. In the past one could order interlibrary loans of print or microform editions of published/accepted dissertations from the granting institution. Virginia Tech's Ed Fox (a good friend from my years at CD-ROM Professional where he served on the editorial board for me) has led a major international effort to bring dissertations into Open Access, making them available - in some cases even with datasets and other files attached - freely over the web. The Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations database currently gives access to over 1.5 million dissertations (most in pdf format) from across the globe.
So, how does this change access? This project, for me, began with a query from a faculty member. Even I was surprised at how much access to these documents has changed. Want to know more? Check out this article I wrote :
"Dissertations and Research in an Era of Change," SEARCHER 18(2): 22-35, March 2010. Final Paper.pdf
The University of Minnesota Libraries offer special, free workshops on doing research using dissertations and other tools to help users answer the question: "How Do I Know That I've Found Everything?" If you're on campus, you may want to sign up for this, or other workshops, to help you refine your research methods and improve your results!