Nearly a decade ago, computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University embarked on a project with an astonishingly lofty goal: Digitize the published works of humankind and make them freely available online.

The architects of the Universal Digital Library initiative on Nov. 27 said they have surpassed their latest target, having scanned more than 1.5 million books—many of them in Chinese—and are continuing to scan thousands more daily.

“Anyone who can get on the internet now has access to a collection of books the size of a large university library,” said Raj Reddy, a...

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