(CN) – The New York Public Library’s plan to renovate its central branch threatens free speech by removing 3.5 million books, demolishing underground stacks and selling off two major buildings, writers claim in court.
The petitioners are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis, independent scholar Jacob Morris, Rutgers University Professor Mark Alan Hewitt, New York University Professor Ruth Ann Stewart and publisher Jack MaCrae.
They sued New York City, the City Council, the NYC Department of Buildings, its Landmarks Preservation Commission and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York County Supreme Court.
The library defends its Central Library Plan as necessary step to restore a 102-year-old landmark and preserve its public spaces.
Designed by nonparty architectural firm Foster + Partners, the library says the construction will double the amount of space in the building and reopen spots previously used for staff and storage.
Library spokeswoman Angela Montefinise said the stacks, which hold about 3 million volumes, fail to preserve books properly because they lack temperature and humidity controls.
The project is expected to be completed by 2018.
The scholars and activists who oppose the plan want it permanently shelved.
“(T)he destruction of the stacks and the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library will forever adversely impact the freedom of speech and information right of all library users and create untenable and unconstitutional barriers to the exercise of the right to receive information,” they say in their complaint.
The 25-page complaint provides an overview of the founding of the library, bequeathed in the will of John Jacob Astor.
“The Central Library is a Beaux Arts style building, designed and constructed by the architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings between 1899 and 1911,” the complaint states. “The building was designed as a reading room (the ‘Rose Reading Room’ directly above seven levels of book stacks made of Carnegie steel. In addition to acting as bookshelves, the steel book stacks support each floor above them.
“The NYPL’s first librarian, Dr. John Shaw Billings, advocated this architecture because it enabled library patrons to have optimal access to research materials. The Central Library was the first library in the world to use such a system that integrally facilitated retrieval times for researchers.”
The library’s then-President Paul LeClerc announced the Central Library Plan on March 11, 2008.
The scholars claim that its projected budget has swelled from $250 million to $350 million in the past five years, with no cap in sight. Five community boards in Manhattan and the Bronx passed resolutions demanding study of the economic impact of the plan, according to the complaint.
The Landmark Preservation Commission gave the go-ahead for construction after a one-day public hearing on Jan. 22, but the scholars say there was no public notice of the contents of the decision.
They also protest the plan to merge the collections and services of nearby Mid-Manhattan Library and Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) into the Schwartzman Building.
“By merging the SIBL and the Mid-Manhattan Library with the Central Library, all within the Central Library building, the CLP will cause the number of annual visitors to the Central Library to more than double,” the complaint states. “However, the space in which the SIBL and Mid-Manhattan Library will reside is less than one-third the size of the space they previously occupied. Therefore, implementation of the [plan] will significantly reduce the space available to each visitor of the Central Library.”
According to the complaint, the library has removed 3.5 million books, and 1.5 million of them have been moved to a storage facility in Princeton, N.J.
A researcher who wants access to them must place an advance order and wait up to two business days for their arrival, the scholars say.
But they say the delays will likely last longer.
“It is probable that it will take more than one to two business days for books to arrive,” the complaint states. “It is also probable that some requested books will not be sent at all.”
Montefinise, the spokeswoman, said the number of books to be transferred to New Jersey is actually 1 million, not 3.5 million.
The scholars claim the plan runs afoul of the New York State Constitution, the State Environmental Quality Review Act, New York State Education Law and the terms of the charity trust underpinning the library.
They seek a permanent injunction barring the implementation of the Central Library Plan and stopping the sale of the Mid-Manhattan Library and SIBL.
They are represented by Arthur Schwartz and Laura Barbieri, with Advocates for Justice.
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