Twelve universities, including three in Illinois, will digitize select collections in their libraries — up to 10 million volumes — as part of Google Inc.'s book-scanning project.

The partnership, which includes Northwestern, University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, will speed up a digitization process that might have taken hundreds of years, school officials said while announcing the agreement Wednesday. The result will be a shared digital archive that faculty, students and the public can access quickly.

"This library digitization agreement is one of the largest cooperative actions of its kind in higher education," Northwestern University provost Lawrence Dumas said in a statement. "We have a collective ambition to share resources and work together to preserve the world's printed treasures."

The agreement covers Google and the 12 schools on the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

Besides the Illinois universities, schools on the committee include nine other Big Ten schools affiliated through athletics — Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin-Madison.

Under the six-year agreement, which can be renewed, Google will fund the digitization and each institution will cover the costs of preparing the books.

Books chosen for scanning will be from each university's strong and distinct collection areas, including Northwestern's Africana collection and Chicago's South Asia holdings, officials said. Internet users will use key words to search books' texts, which can then be downloaded.

"In the print world, students and scholars are constrained by searching brief descriptions in card catalogs, tables of contents and indexes," University of Illinois Librarian Paula Kaufman said in a statement. "Now we can search every word in every volume, and make connections across works that would have taken weeks — even years — to make in the past."

The committee said Google will abide by copyright laws as it develops the searchable material. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company provides the full text of books that are part of the public domain as well as limited portions of copyrighted books.

The consortium will also create what they said was a first-of-its-kind online repository to collectively archive and manage the full content of public domain works scanned by Google within the schools' libraries.

Wisconsin and Michigan already have similar agreements with Google as part of group of university libraries worldwide that also includes Harvard, Stanford and Oxford universities. The consortium's agreement does not supersede the individual school agreements, school officials said.