A truck belonging to Google pulls up at the Stanford University library near San Francisco just before nine in the morning. It's loaded with books that Google checked out and is now returning, after having scanned them so they can be uploaded onto a computer. Once the truck is empty, library workers load it up again, with more books to digitize.
Google Books Director Daniel Clancy says the company's goal is to scan up to 40 million books. "Google said our mission is to organize all the world's information," he said.
In addition to Stanford, the University of California in Berkeley and the University of Michigan have signed agreements authorizing Google to scan their books.
Stanford librarian Michael Keller says the initiative can give new life to obscure books.
"What happens when you digitize these books and make them accessible on the net is that they get a lot more use," he explained. "People can find the stuff; 10 times more use than formerly was recorded."
Silicon Valley attorney Gary Reback represents the Open Book Alliance, whose members include Microsoft and Amazon.com. He warns that even though Google may start out by not charging for access to what it digitizes, it may eventually impose big fees to use its online library.
"It's not a public library, it's a private library," he explained. "And it's being run for profit, big profits. Google is going to charge university scholars, ordinary people, even school children to get access to books that Google copied."
Digitizing current books whose copyright holders are known is not in dispute.
Neither is digitizing older books whose copyrights have expired.
Problems arise over digitizing so-called "orphan books," books that are out of print and still under copyright, but the current holder of that copyright is unknown. Selling digital copies of those books could become profitable, and there are questions over who will get those profits.
Google insists the project is about more than money.
"Google hopes to benefit from it by improving our search and we expect that we will make some money as we sell the books, but the motivation is not the money we're going to make from selling books," added Daniel Clancy.
Meanwhile, Google continues scanning truckloads of books at a time. Hearings on the legal issues involved are scheduled in front of a federal judge in February.