Britain's public libraries, for generations a source of enjoyment and education to millions of children and adults, will become the focus of bitter political battles and legal action this month as users fight to prevent mass closures.
More than 400 libraries from the Isle of Wight to South Wales and Yorkshire face the axe as councils make difficult choices about the future of local services to meet government demands for £6.5bn of savings over two years. The number could double as half of all councils are yet to announce their money-saving plans.
Campaigners, who include Joanna Trollope, Philip Pullman and Tony Christie, are demanding a public inquiry into the cuts which they say amount to an attack on Britain's cultural and knowledge base. They claim Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, could avert expensive local legal challenges by ordering an inquiry into the legality of the planned closures.
Encouraged by David Cameron's Big Society philosophy, councils across the UK say volunteers must replace paid staff if libraries are to be saved. This week the Government will unveil its plan to give communities the right to bid to take over state-run services. But experts say that politicians have failed to understand the social, cultural and educational importance of libraries, and the role librarians play in providing services.
The Labour leader Ed Miliband said yesterday his party would back campaigns to save libraries as "a place where community is built, as families get to know each other and form friendships". A national day of action is planned for 5 February in libraries serving poor and affluent areas, countering claims by a quango leader that libraries are the preserve of the "privileged, mainly white middle classes".
Lib Dem and Tory ministers have privately expressed concern about the threat posed to libraries, but remain anxious to make clear that under the coalition, local decisions are taken without Whitehall interference. Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, has warned councils repeatedly against cutting frontline services without first looking for savings elsewhere. "The Government has delivered a tough but fair local government settlement that ensures the most vulnerable communities are protected," a spokesman said.
However, Ed Vaizey, the Tory culture minister, has been singled out for anger because of his high-profile opposition to library closures while in opposition. Critics say Mr Vaizey, who referred to library closures as "cost-driven vandalism" in 2009, has become "impotent" in a department "frozen into inactivity".
Mr Vaizey dismissed these accusations as "wrong" and told The Independent on Sunday that he has been "very active" as libraries minister. He rejected calls for an inquiry into the closures but said every council decision would be checked to ensure statutory obligations were still met. His Future Libraries Programme will report on alternatives ways of providing library services later this year, but this will come too late for many libraries.
Desmond Clarke, former director of Faber & Faber publishers, said: "There is a leadership void at a time of major crisis. We need someone more senior than Ed Vaizey to intervene immediately as the wave of rebellion among people in towns and communities is growing. The impact on local communities will be devastating, the savings relatively small."
Annie Mauger, chief executive of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip), said: "This is not just about what libraries do, it is about what they represent: free access to knowledge and information for everyone. It feels Orwellian that we'll wake up one day and a third of all the libraries are gone. Is that the type of society we want?"
Across England and Wales, libraries face cuts of 20 to 30 per cent, which means as many as one in five libraries and one in four full-time librarian jobs are at risk, according to Cilip. This comes despite the fact more than 300 million books were borrowed last year. Tens of thousands of people use the internet in libraries every day.
Library users in Oxfordshire, Lewisham, Doncaster, Somerset and Gloucestershire are among those who have sought legal advice about challenging local closures of about 50 per cent, which they say will make it impossible for councils to provide "comprehensive", "efficient" and "improving" library services required under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. The Local Government Association said councils were being impeded by the "badly outdated" legislation which was drawn up before the arrival of the internet.
Oxfordshire County Council has earmarked 20 out of 43 libraries for closure. It is unlikely to help Oxford's attempt to become Unesco's World City of the Book in 2014. Within the largely affluent county is one of Europe's biggest housing estates, Blackbird Leys, which is in the bottom 10 per cent of areas for educational achievement. Its library is at risk; the main libraries used by Mr Cameron and Mr Vaizey's constituents in Witney and Wantage are safe, although smaller branches are threatened.
In Somerset, 20 out of 34 libraries are under threat, but the council is considering charging membership fees to save some. London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, last week announced plans to establish a trust of volunteers to run the capital's libraries, a third of which are under threat.
A DCMS spokeswoman said: "Legal challenges mounted against local authorities are a matter for the interested parties and the courts and outside the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State... It is premature to consider intervention at such a stage."
What the users say: 'Losing ours would have a big impact'
Marion Pagan, 86, regularly uses Hester's Way Library in Cheltenham. An avid reader, she has been a member for nearly 40 years, and will find it difficult to get to Cheltenham Central library. "They never closed libraries during the war, so it seems drastic now. It would be a big loss to me if it closes. It makes a big difference to me, especially because I'm old, and I would really miss it."
Rose Stephenson, 44, a community development worker in Somerset, has two teenage children who use the library. "The local Martock Library is a three-minute walk away. I would have to drive eight to 10 miles to the next nearest library, which would take much more planning. And the village youth centre, which used to provide facilities and activities for teenagers, is closed, so losing the library would have a big impact."
Isabel Anderson, nine, suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and has been off school for over a year. Her local library in Wiveliscombe, Somerset, has helped her not to fall behind in her school work. She is too tired to travel further away. "I use my library two or three times a week for books, DVDs and story tapes. When I was really ill, libraries provided me with something to do and helped me to keep up with school."
Ruth Corboy, 42, is a mother from Milton Keynes and a regular user of Stony Stratford Library, where members have emptied the shelves in protest. "Our library is one of the few community spaces that mothers still feel safe sending their children. It has been critical to my daughter's education, and she frequently uses it. Visits from authors and teachers provide entertainment and inspiration that supplements their schooling."
Mily Newton, 10, from Blockley in Somerset, who wants to be an author when she grows up, said: "I love to read, so I am very upset about the library cuts. I use the mobile library lots as my mum and dad work, so we don't have time to visit the local library. On the small close where I live there are 18 or more children who always go to the library bus."
A treasured part of British life
Charles Dickens described libraries as a "source of pleasure and improvements in the cottages, the garrets and the ghettos of the poorest of our people", at the opening of Manchester's first public library in 1852. This came two years after the Public Library Act was introduced to "raise educational standards throughout society".
At first, Tory sceptics argued that Britain's wealthier classes should not pay for a service that would predominantly benefit the working class. But donations from wealthy entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie helped to finance hundreds of public libraries. They became a gateway out of social exclusion and a treasured aspect of cultural life.
By 1997, more than half of Britons had membership cards. In 2001, Labour introduced the first national standards which led to longer opening hours and internet access. Now the challenge is to tackle falling book prices and government cuts that have eroded library membership.