The biggest library ever built

King Charles I once asked the chief librarian of the Bodleian Library in Oxford if he could borrow a book. He was told, politely, to get lost. A few years later, as the wheel of history turned, Oliver Cromwell also wondered if he might take a book away from the great collection, to read it at his leisure. He received exactly the same answer.

Roundhead or cavalier, king or commoner, no one could take a book out of the library. Its books were not for lending, but for consulting. The library was a temple of learning, where scholars might come to read and learn. The books stayed put.

But no longer. Today I can select any one of hundreds of thousands of digitised books from the Bodleian, including some of its rarest treasures, and read them on a computer screen. I can do this when the library is closed. I can do it without authorisation. I can do it from Antarctica, so long as I have an internet link.

Over the past four years, in partnership with Google, the Bodleian and a number of other great libraries have gradually been transferring their holdings into digital, searchable form. By next year, the Bodleian will have put half a million books online. According to one estimate, Google is digitising books at the rate of ten million a year, and it is not alone. Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon are all taking part in what amounts to a digital-literary goldrush.

This digitising of human knowledge is the most profound cultural event since the invention of the printing press itself. In the third century BC the librarians of Alexandria sought to collect “books of all the peoples of the world”, and amassed perhaps half a million scrolls. But even the library at Alexandria was thought to contain perhaps as little as a third of all the books then written.

The great Internet Library is more ambitious: it may one day contain the entire written culture, not just all the books, but countless millions of articles, half a million films, and billions of web pages. Kevin Kelly, “senior maverick” of Wired magazine, recently predicted in The New York Times that the online library would eventually contain “the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages, available to all people, all the time”. Technology has made achievable what the librarians of Alexandria could only dream of: one vast, searchable, all-encompassing book, the complete history of the race.

We are not there yet. The scramble to digitise has so far produced a patchwork. Inevitably, with digitisation still in its infancy, there is a strong slant towards Western books, written in English. There are many gaps. The Bodleian is digitising selectively and has placed nothing under copyright into the Library Project. The issue of copyright is fraught, and essential: unless copyright is properly defended on the internet, with safeguards to ensure that both authors and publishers are properly remunerated, the very future of literature is threatened.

Yet a vast database containing almost all the texts of the past, the good and the bad, the memorable and the forgotten, has the capacity to change the collective cultural memory. A single search will be able to produce an entire shelf of online references, linking together subjects and texts not just by specific words, but by footnotes, citations and bibliographies, forging new families and communities of ideas. In the past, the visitor to a library could read only one book at a time: now, with a sophisticated search engine, the books can be made to consult one another.

Libraries were once, intentionally, daunting places. The librarian demanding silence and the door guard demanding a reader's pass were acting in the interests of scholarship and preservation, but all too often libraries also restricted access to an intellectual elite. Assyrian librarians actually put a curse on anyone misusing manuscripts: “May the gods put his flesh in a dog's mouth.”

Through the internet, the library doors are suddenly thrown open to the widest possible readership, genuinely fulfilling Thomas Bodley's aim to make collected books “available to the whole republic of the learned”.

So far from driving readers from libraries and on to the internet, digital collections are likely to have the reverse effect. Just as televised football matches revitalised live football, so the chance to see and sample great literature on the web will encourage more people to go in search of the real thing.

The internet is not a place for prolonged reading or profound research, but for tasting, trawling, and exploring. Just as no one should treat Wikipedia as gospel, so, I suspect, few will plough through a black-and-white, on-screen version of a library book when the genuine article is easily available. The internet is only the first stage of discovery, not the end.

Libraries die when people forget what is in them: they thrive when we are reminded of their riches, and so far from eroding our physical contact with ancient books, the great online library currently amassing its collection will surely revive that relationship.

There is still no tactile pleasure to compare with opening an old book: the gust of vellum and parchment, the knowledge of countless eyes tracing the page before you, the marginalia, the chance to hold some knowledge in your hand.

The internet will never replicate that experience (just as no technology has been able to supplant the paper book, of which we are reading more than ever), but it can help, immeasurably, to lead us to it.

And it can do so without any danger that some disapproving Assyrian librarian will set the dogs on us if we fail to return a book from the online library on time.

Ben Macintyre