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The landmark Main Library facing Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the one with the lions out front, is due to be renovated, and the plan is generating a huge controversy. The plan would demolish the aging stacks that hold three million books, move many books offsite, and create a new, state-of-the-art circulating library where those stacks once were. Opponents worry that millions of books will be moved out of easy reach of scholars, and that researchers will play second fiddle to computer users and e-book readers. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: If you enter the glorious third floor Rose Reading Room at the famed 42nd Street library on a weekday afternoon, almost every chair is filled. People still put their slips of paper in and wait for their numbers to appear on two large boards. The books are retrieved from seven floors of stacks below, although some books are stored off-site. The stacks are closed to the public. Victoria Steele is the director of collections at the New York Public Library.

VICTORIA STEELE: It's very hot and still in these stacks, and it's not good for the books. And actually, if you take a little whiff, that's the smell of books dying.

ADLER: The plan to renovate, known as the Central Library Plan, would demolish these seven floors of stacks, store some books under Bryant Park, and move at least a million or two of the books - one hears various numbers - to climate-controlled storage in Princeton, New Jersey. The library would sell the Mid-Manhattan Library down the street, perhaps the largest circulating library branch in the world, as well as the building housing the Science, Industry and Business Library - known as SIBL, about 10 blocks away - and move both libraries into the main building where the stacks are now. Tony Marx, formerly the president of Amherst College, because president and CEO of the New York Public Library about nine months ago.

TONY MARX: This is the greatest public or democratic research facility in the world. You don't have to be a member of the university. Anyone can have access to anything here.

ADLER: Marx says the New York Public Library gets no money from Congress, like the Library of Congress. It doesn't have a great endowment like an Ivy League university.

MARX: And we've seen a 25 percent reduction in our research budget. We can't hire the librarians we need, and we can't buy the books we need.

ADLER: Marx says selling the two library buildings for $200 million, with an additional $150 million promised from the city, would not only pay for the renovations, but would provide millions of dollars a year to hire new librarians and curators for the research libraries and collections and keep the library open until 11 p.m. on many days.

He claims bar-coding each book would make it possible to get any book from offsite storage within 24 hours, but that's something that doesn't always happen now with offsite books. And there's mounting opposition to the plan by writers, scholars and library users. The controversy was first reported by Scott Sherman in The Nation. Here is Sherman on WNYC's LEONARD LOPATE SHOW last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SCOTT SHERMAN: The 42nd Street Library is one of the world's great research libraries. And the Central Library Plan is basically a plan to turn it into a giant Internet cafe.

ADLER: Sherman argues that the 87 branch libraries - some in the poorest neighborhoods in the city - should be first priority. Famous authors, like Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard, are among hundreds that have signed a petition against the plan. And many opponents spoke at a debate held at the New School.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

DAVID NASAW: We're being told that the only way to save the library is to rip out its innards and transport millions of books to New Jersey.

ADLER: David Nasaw is a professor of history at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NASAW: I need to know more. I don't much care where the books are. They could be on the moon for all I care, but I want them there in 24 - I want them in 24 minutes, but I will accept 24 hours.

ADLER: We'll deliver at night. We'll hire more trucks. You could order books in advance on Saturday, Tony Marx responds. Opponents also worry that the research part of the library is being slighted for innovations before they have proved their worth. The Science Industry and Business library, SIBL, for example, was built when it was believed the CD-ROM was the wave of the future, and it's never quite lived up to its promise. Charles Peterson, the editor of N+1 magazine, says a transitional time calls for a more transitional plan.

CHARLES PETERSON: The Kindle was created in, what, 2007 - the iPad, I think, in 2011, something like that. It's true that more and more people are getting e-readers. But we really don't know what research is going to look like in 10 or 20 years.

ADLER: Tony Marx replies: We're not saying books will disappear.

MARX: The Mid-Manhattan library and SIBL are not to be an Internet cafe. They are to be a great circulating library, feeding the informed citizenry with ideas and place to think and study.

ADLER: The distrust felt by some scholars has been fueled by the closing of some libraries and collections - the Slavic and Baltic Collection, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here are the Pushkin over here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How can they clear out the books? It's a library.

ADLER: The controversy even caught the attention of PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. In this skit, someone comes looking for a work by Pushkin, only to find the books being carted away by a forklift.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nobody reads old books, only new books, only on iPad and Kindle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, but you've got millions of books down there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three million, maybe four.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What are they going to do with the space?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is valuable real estate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Where are the books going to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To Turtle Mountain, in North Dakota.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: But there are no mountains in North Dakota.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There will be when these books get there, that's for sure.

ADLER: Opponents also say librarians have been reluctant to talk publicly about all this. At the New School debate last month, a few librarians went up to the mike and said they had to sign agreements not to talk about these issues when they left their jobs. Tony Marx said let me be clear: Under my administration, talking about policy issues is not off-limits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MARX: I need to hear what people think. I want to get advice. I'll take criticism.

ADLER: There's no doubt that ever passionate voice in this debates believes in and loves the New York Public Library. But some questions remain unanswered. Architectural plans have not yet appeared. The city's role is still unclear. And the New School debate was the first real public airing of these issues. As the president and library trustees continue to talk to the media and meet with community boards, it's clear that if the plan or an amended plan is to succeed with ease, there will have to be more open discussion and more transparency. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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