NEW YORK — Like the famous marble lions out front, the New York Public Library’s flagship building has long symbolized serene endurance in the service of knowledge. But plans for a major change within the landmark have kindled an intellectual culture clash over its direction and the future of libraries themselves.
The $300 million-plus proposal entails moving millions of books out of the Fifth Avenue building’s storied research stacks and into storage to make way for a lending library with other volumes, computers and a cafe.
Library officials say it will save the research books and millions of dollars and adapt the grand building further to the wired world. But a roster of scholars, preservationists and other critics suspect the library of masking a real estate ploy as a public benefit and say the project will turn a singular institution into “library lite.”
Bibliophiles protested outside a trustees’ meeting, Pulitzer Prize-winning historians have sued the library, and novelists including Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa signed a petition. While library leaders have made sizable concessions and say the plans are being redrawn, the uproar continues in a chorus of anxieties about libraries’ roles when information is only a touchscreen away.
For libraries in general, “this is a moment of transformation,” library President Anthony Marx said in an interview. “And certainly the controversy over this building and its renovation is, I suppose, the most visible aspect of that transformation.”
In recent years, many libraries have grappled to balance — and pay for — new demands for electronic services and livelier environments against their commitments to provide repositories for books and settings for study. Their efforts have spurred commentary about the line between catering to changing times and morphing into a book-themed mall.
Those choices have come under scrutiny in cities including Seattle, where the striking, 9-year-old Central Library has been praised as a design jewel, tourist draw and boon to book circulation but faulted as short on amenable spots to, well, read. After San Francisco’s new main library opened in 1996, novelist Nicholson Baker publicly deplored plans — ultimately abandoned — to eliminate its card catalog in favor of an online system.