June 11, 2006 -- Deep in the basement of the Stanford University library, hidden among the volumes of Homer and Shakespeare, is Stanford's fastest reader.
It is a robot, invented in Switzerland, that can scan up to 1,000 pages an hour. It turns the pages itself, and even blows air to separate them when they're stuck together.
Stanford's librarian, Michael Keller, says the robot has a giant reading list.
"My personal goal," he said, "is to see how much of these 8 million volumes that we have gathered here -- how much of that can we make accessible and more available because they've been digitized?"
Until now, converting books into data that can be put in a computer was a very slow job -- done by students or low-cost workers overseas. That limited the number of complete books available on the Internet, but it won't be limited for long.
"The Internet presents us now with a way to make them more broadly available and more deeply available," Keller said.
Virtual libraries are spreading across the Web. The most public is Google's book search feature, which allows people to sample books, for free, from Stanford and four other major collections.
Another firm, ebrary, offers books, maps, scientific papers and even sheet music. It is a giant database subscribers pay to access. Books and other documents can be searched because a computer can recognize printed words.
"We're searching within what is plainly a digital scan of this book," said Christopher Warnock, the CEO of ebrary.com, demonstrating the search feature. "And if we search for every occurrence of 'love' within this document, we can find it much more quickly and efficiently than if we had to go through and read the entire book."
Old books can be digitized and preserved with no fear that the paper will turn to dust.
"I think of this project as a kind of witness protection program for the past, run by librarians," said James O'Donnell, the provost of Georgetown University.
The scanning at Stanford alone will go on for years.
"It is very much a revolution," said librarian Keller, "and very much a revolution to the benefit of one and all."