GOOGLE AND ITS library partners sound positively altruistic when they talk about the digitization of books. “Even before we started Google, we dreamed of making the incredible breadth of information that librarians so lovingly organize searchable online,” Google cofounder Larry Page says in the Google Story. “The Google library project will transform the way we do research and scholarship,” according to a statement from James Hilton, University of Michigan associate provost for academic information and instructional technology affairs, interim librarian, and professor of psychology. “For the first time, everyone will be able to search the written record of human knowledge.”

Other libraries and technology companies started to profess the same sentiments. “Let’s get the people’s books back to the people!” exhorted Brewster Kahle in announcing the Open Content Alliance, a collaborative project of Yahoo!, Adobe, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, MSN, and institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the University of Toronto. The alliance aims to digitize books in the public domain — anything published before 1923 — and deliver them in a cool on-screen format that looks exactly like a book, only two-dimensional.

Meanwhile, cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons — a site where authors and artists can license their own work — raised more than $1.2 million to expand its license offerings and help its license holders find buyers or licensees. Random House announced that it would put its titles online, for sale at an average of four cents per page (recipes from cookbooks will be more). HarperCollins said it would put its catalog of titles online in a searchable format, aiming to have the library running by summer. A Google — or Yahoo! or Amazon — search would lead users to the Harper­Collins site.

And Amazon touted its own digital-book programs: Using its Search Inside the Book technology as a foundation, one new service will allow customers to buy online access to a page, a chapter, or an entire book. Another­ service will let customers pay a fee to have online access to the actual books they buy.

Then, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sony CEO Howard Stringer unveiled his company’s electronic book reader,­ with megalong battery life and a screen designed to reduce eyestrain. What to read on it? One of the HarperCollins, Random House, or Simon & Schuster titles downloadable from the Sony Connect website.

Could publishers, then, come up with their own online business models to preempt a Grokster-type piracy disaster? Could Sony’s e-book be the iPod of ­electronic readers, leading to widespread acceptance of downloaded books? Or might Apple, already delving into TV and video, go even more multiformat with its iTunes store, necessitating a name change?