It's as big as an SUV and lives behind an unmarked door in the basement of the Stanford University library. The Swiss-designed robot scanner rapidly turns and flattens pages of old books -- both large and small, even bound newspaper volumes -- then scans and digitizes the text faster than you can say Evelyn Wood. For Michael Keller, Stanford's head librarian, it's a powerful new tool for achieving his dream of putting the world's most advanced scholarly and scientific knowledge on the Internet. "Think about the power of bringing our library to little schools in the middle of Africa. Would it make a difference for those who now have their minds closed to the idea of democracy?" says Keller. The first book-scanning robots were introduced this spring by 4DigitalBooks of Switzerland, and Kirtas Technologies of Victor, NY, and have already sparked the interest of libraries and private and nonprofit groups now working to digitize books. Typically, the manual labor of library digitization has been handled by students or low-cost workers in countries like India and the Philippines. But these solutions can create logistical problems, including long-distance transportation, which can result in damaged originals. By contrast, the robot scanner can be located close to book collections, and offers speed and quality control unattainable by manual systems. It can scan more than 1,000 pages an hour. Still, manual processing is usually less expensive. 4DigitalBooks co-founder Ivo Iossiger admits the robot becomes cost effective only on projects exceeding 5.5 million pages. So the vast majority of digitization over the next several years will probably still be done by hand. (NY Times 12 May 2003)