Researchers and scholars the world over will soon gain access to tens of thousands of rare and sought-after books from the vast archives of the Russian State Library via the internet.
A £2 million privately sponsored project will load the complete texts of thousands of books in English, French, German, Russian and other languages on to a website in the spring. For a small fee, scholars will be able to download texts.
The project to create a national digital library based at the RSL - better known as the Lenin Library, Moscow - is funded by the Russian company Adamant in partnership with the library.
The company was founded by a group of Moscow State University economists who made their fortunes in the 1990s in the oil business. It plans to tap into a potentially lucrative international market in the electronic delivery of texts and archive material.
Adamant will give a percentage of every sale of a text over the net to the library, which has just completed a £600,000 project to update electronic catalogues, retrain staff and instal modern computer equipment.
About 200 extra staff have been hired to transfer the texts using 40 specialised computer scanners. More than 1,000 books a month are being uploaded, and the number is set to rise to 5,000 a month.
Alexander Visliy, deputy head of the RSL information service, said he expected that the database could eventually hold 100,000 to 200,000 of the library's 20 million titles.
"This is the biggest project in Europe.It demonstrates a confidence that e-commerce in this area will become a significant market," Mr Visliy said. As a multilingual service, it will rival America's NetLibrary ( www. NetLibrary.com ), he added.
Each month, a committee led by library director Viktor Fedorov selects texts for the project. All the books are out of copyright.
The criteria for inclusion is influenced by a text's likely popularity with historians, writers, researchers and academics.
"We are concentrating on classic literature and unusual publications from the early 20th century - family histories, poetry, books with pictures and encyclopedias," Mr Visliy said.
"Later, Adamant plans to attract new authors so that it can offer new material via the internet," he continued.
The charges for downloading books have not been finalised. They are likely to be based on the costs and the perceived demand for the text.
"We hope that most of the books will be available for a lower price than the printed version," Mr Visliy said.
In a country where internet use has reached only 3 million of a population exceeding 140 million, the project's sponsors are aiming towards the international scholars' market, beyond Moscow and St Petersburg.
The site should be running by March.