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New York Public Library’s Plan to Remove Books Draws Protests

In New York, activists, including some prominent authors, are fighting to stop a plan they say would gut the amount of research material readily available to the public.

The “Central Library Plan” calls for the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library. Their operations would be absorbed into Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue branch after it is renovated, a project that includes opening up seating space and desk space by removing research stacks, displacing millions of books that will be moved offsite.

The New York Times reports that about 50 people spoke at a legislative hearing on the project Thursday, including noted presidential biographer Edmund Morris, who said that because of the plan, he has decided not to leave his research archive to the library.

“An exquisite repository is now going to be turned into a populist hangout, and have its former stack space stuffed with more and more and more and more miles of computer cable,” he said in prepared remarks. “That’s O.K. for scholars whose attention span extends back no farther than the early 1980s. But those of us cognizant of what happened to civilization after the great library in Alexandria burned down can only think with trepidation of what the Central Plan is going to do to the historical memory of New York.”

Other authors have previously spoken out against the plan, including Malcolm Gladwell, whose remarks during BookExpo America in May focused not on the loss of research shelves but on the neglect of local branches, the Huffington Post reported.

Gladwell spoke about libraries as “the only place where you can browse [books]. A world in which you can only find things that you have chosen to pursue is an incredibly impoverished one.”

“Libraries are also safe havens for people who are not from privileged backgrounds, who do not have access to books and where there is no quiet space to work.”

Also in May, more than 750 writers, scholars and librarians signed a petition asking that the plan be reconsidered, according to the Mobylives blog.

Among the letter’s signers: Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa; Pulitzer Prize winners Frances FitzGerald, Edmund Morris, Art Spiegelman, and Annalyn Swan; writers Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Amitav Ghosh, and Luc Sante.

For all the controversy, New York’s plans look old school compared with what’s happening in San Antonio, Texas, which this fall will open a bookless library designed to emulate the techy, minimalist aesthetic of an Apple store, as NPR reported.

With 50 computer terminals and a stock of laptops and tablets on-site, the building will also offer an array of preloaded e-readers available for the card-carrying customer to take home.

Do these projects represent the wave of the future or an ill-fated experiment? Do libraries still need books?