ATLANTA (CNN) -
The old library card catalogue took a step further into cyberspace Tuesday, with Google and the libraries of four universities and the city of New York announcing a partnership with the potential to make millions of books available and searchable online.
The University of Michigan and Stanford -- alma mater of the search engine giant's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- are the only libraries to agree to have all of their contents scanned and uploaded to Google's vast cyber-library, but more seem certain to follow.
"Even before we started Google, we dreamed of making the incredible breadth of information that librarians so lovingly organize searchable online," said Page, who is president of Google Products.
Sources at Google (up $4.33 to $174.78, Research) said the book scanner used in the process was developed in-house and is not commercially available. While Google would give no further comments on the equipment, a statement from Harvard said evaluators at the university thought Google's scanning process "is much gentler with books than other high-speed processes in use today."
New York Public Library spokeswoman Nancy Donner told CNN work on the deal has been proceeding secretly for several months with only "a few members of the library working on it."
The project is part of Google's Print Program, which Page said "enables users to find matches within the full text of books, while publishers and authors monetize that information."
The Library Project will make countless volumes of rare and out-of-print books accessible to anyone with Internet access.
"We believe passionately that such universal access to the world's printed treasures is mission-critical for today's great public university," said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan.
Harvard is offering a limited pilot program of 40,000 randomly selected books, covering a range of age and condition, both in and out of copyright, with an eye toward adding more after an evaluation of the initial program.
The New York Public Library and Oxford are limiting their offerings to works in the public domain, which can be made available online for free.
"Making the wealth of knowledge accumulated in the Bodleian Library's historic collections accessible to as many people as possible is at the heart of Oxford University's commitment to lifelong learning," said Reg Carr, the director of the university's library services. "We hope that Oxford's contribution to this project will be of scholarly use, as well as general interest, to people around the world."
For works that are still covered under an existing copyright, the search engine will provide a snippet of text and refer users to publishers or libraries where the work can be found.
A spokeswoman for the American Libraries Association, the oldest and largest group of its kind with 64,000 members, said a major benefit from the Google initiative is that more information will be able to be readily searched online -- since so much library material published before 1970 will be online in print form.
But the Google partnership will not spell the end of the library.
"We've been asked the same thing from the time the Internet became popular," the spokeswoman said. "But library use has actually gone up during that time. In the last 10 years, the number of library visits has actually doubled. ... Once people see information online, they still like to see the physical piece as well."
In fact, the role of librarians may increase.
"The role of librarians will still be important in organizing the information and helping people find it," the spokeswoman said. "Libraries really make technology work for Americans, but there will always be limitations on the technology. People are still turning to the librarians and saying, 'Help me.'"