More than 250,000 books and journals will be available online for university students within three years if an ambitious digitisation project goes to plan.
The service from Texas-based Questia will be offered from early next year, when 50,000 titles should be accessible. Investors believe the venture, founded two years ago by 28-year-old Harvard law graduate Troy Williams, has the potential to entice a large number of the 10.6 million United States college students to sign up.
Questia, which has so far attracted $135 million in funding, was further bolstered last month when Pearson Education, the world's biggest educational publisher, signed an agreement to license hundreds, possibly thousands, of its titles.
Mr Williams said he got the idea while working on the Harvard Law Review in 1997, when he realised that while it was possible to search the full text of any law case online, the same was not true of books.
Williams created Questia just ten months after graduating from Harvard in June 1998. Initial investors included Rod Canion, the founder of Compaq, who is now chairman of Questia.
The liberal arts-focused service seems likely to prove popular with students. As well as providing access to titles unavailable in some libraries, the collection can be searched by word, phrase or concept.
Even more appealing is the ability to cut and paste from texts. This enables a citation and bibliography entry to be automatically created in one of four formats. A hyperlink back to the source document is also inserted, allowing academics to check a quote if an assignment is emailed to them.
Williams said online books can also be highlighted and notes can made in the margins. Users' work will be stored on Questia's servers and can be accessed through any web browser. "This will be a service that will be as indispensable to students as the word processor has become," he said.
Mr Williams said the service will be priced at levels similar to a monthly mobile phone or internet access subscription - about $30. A team of former university librarians is selecting the most valuable titles in 45 areas, including art, philosophy and sociology, for what is called the world's largest digitisation project.
The idea appeals to publishers, 95 of whom have signed up, as it minimises the risk of piracy - users can view just one page at a time - and offers a chance to make money from out-of-print titles.
Questia's drive to create a vast online research library seems to be a win-win situation. As Mr Williams said: "Somewhere the net got sidetracked by e-commerce, but its real power is about information flow and getting it to a larger number of people."