The Internet company that famously promised to "do no evil" is on a new mission to digitize the collections of some leading research institutions and establish a massive online reading room.
But Google Inc's ambitious effort could herald the beginning of the commercialization of libraries, which have long been trusted as an independent resource for books and knowledge without the obvious trappings of marketing or goals of profit.
For the sake of wider public access, librarians and archivists are grateful and excited about Google's underwriting of the otherwise cost-prohibitive effort to scan millions of books and research materials.
Yet they also know that Google, the world's leading Internet search engine, relies on revenues from advertisements that are often related to the search topic at hand.
And the agreements that Google worked out with the research institutions are non-exclusive, which means Google's rivals, such as Yahoo Inc or Amazon.com, might try to get access to the same material Google digitizes and use it for their own purposes.
In other words, even if Google remains true to its word to "do no evil," another search engine without the same ethics might come along.
"There is anxiety about whether the student researcher, scholar or citizen will be guided into the free public access rather than being lured into a purchasing relationship with the publisher," said Duane Webster, the executive director of the Association of Research
But Webster said those fears are tempered as long as free, open access remains an option, whether it involves guiding users to the actual digital versions online or the Web sites of the libraries that hold the material.
The greater good of expanding the public's access to resources that now require a visit to a physical library outweighs the eventual possibility of bothersome ads, he said.
Google officials say the books it will be scanning from its partnering libraries will be integrated into its overall search engine.
But it won't run advertising or try to market books when it directs users to the text of the book or to places where users can buy it.
Google's move comes as libraries adapt to a changing role in the digital world.
Though some may believe it should be the role of the government, not a private corporation, to archive and create access to books and materials that should be part of the public domain, digitizing older materials is extremely costly. It's the main reason why public libraries don't already have digital versions of everything.
"It's not a question of whether people believe that content should be made public, but how it is going to be financed," said Joe Esposito, former chief executive of Encyclopedia Britannica and now an independent consultant for digital media.
"And I don't see much of an appetite of the public in funding this," he said.
The Library of Congress, the world's largest library, has put into digital form only a fraction of its 130 million items -- and thanks largely to private donations, not taxpayers.
Libraries from India, China, Egypt, Canada and the Netherlands, for instance, are working with the San Francisco-based non-profit Internet Archive on a plan to create a publicly available digital archive of 1 million books on the Internet.
"The public domain belongs to the public and should be publicly accessible without running only into commercial interests," said Brewster Kahle, founder and president of the Internet Archive.