LONDON -- The British Museum's celebrated domed reading room, where Marx, Lenin and Gandhi pondered ways to change the world, will remain the hushed preserve of readers and thinkers, the museum said yesterday.

The announcement ended half a century of argument over the fate of the reading room, beloved by generations of scholars for its cerebral but cozy atmosphere.

The reading room's 18 million books will be moved to the new British Library in the next three years, museum Director Sir David Wilson announced.

But the circular chamber, with its cathedral-style windows and concentric rings of reference-book shelves, will remain a reading room.

The room, built in 1857, will even be redecorated in its original 19th-century style.

"I hope this will settle the argument," Wilson said.

The reading room's fate had been uncertain since just after World War II, when the museum proposed to knock down 7 1/2 acres of surrounding historic Bloomsbury for a new library and modern reading room.

The plan was quashed by the government in 1967 after objections from residents and conservationists.

In 1978, when the government approved building the new British Library, scheduled for completion in the mid-1990s, there was a fresh uproar about the potential loss of the reading room.

Devotees feared it would become just another display area in the museum, or even face eventual demolition.

Academics and writers set up a committee to keep the room as a library and prevent a "considerable loss of amenity and historic connection."

Karl Marx and Lenin used the reading room. Lenin's application for a "reader's ticket" -- needed to use the room -- is on display, signed under his alias, Jacob Richter.

The reading room was also a haunt of Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, playwright George Bernard Shaw, historian Thomas Carlyle and novelist Thomas Hardy.

Poet Algernon Swinburne once fainted in the reading room on being "overcome by the close atmosphere," an official recorded.

Wilson made his announcement about the reading room's future in unveiling a $155 million plan for using the new space the museum will acquire when the books are moved to the new national library, half a mile away.

The redecoration of the room will also include a glass entrance for the public to see in, he said.

After the reading room's collection of books is moved, Wilson said some of the 100,000 volumes belonging to the museum's ethnography department would be housed there.

He also said books on "one or two other subjects which are in demand" would be available in the reading room. And it will be open for study of any of the 8 million objects in the British Museum, he said.

The room is shaped like a bicycle wheel, with a circular inquiry desk at the hub. Lines of reading desks radiate outward like spokes, with 300 places for readers.

The circular interior wall, under huge windows, has three tiers of books with galleries running around them.

Out of sight behind the walls are the 12 million books available to readers. Another 6 million books in the reading room's collection are housed in 16 separate locations in London. All 18 million volumes will be united in the new library, being built at a cost of $953 million.