Q: Do you have `Bridget Jones's Diary'? A: No. Can you come back in six months?

MODERN AND popular fiction has borne the brunt of budget cuts to book funds for public libraries, a survey by The Independent has revealed.

Despite this being the National Year of Reading, widespread cutbacks are being proposed for libraries. The Independent's random survey of 10 librarieshas highlighted how public access to best-selling and award-winning books is shrinking. Most of those surveyed had only two copies of modern bestsellers, and these were almost invariably out on loan.

Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has warned local authorities that "unjustified cuts to library services are simply not acceptable". He has written to 21 councils, demanding they improve their services, and threatened six with investigations.

Much damage has already been done. Some 48 per cent of authorities have closed libraries in the past 10 years and 74 per cent have reduced opening hours, according to a survey by Sheffield University. Many knowledgeable staff have been made redundant and book stocks diminished, it found.

The purchasing value of library book funds has dropped by 12 per cent in the past 10 years. Somerset is one of the worst-hit counties. In 1995- 96 the county council cut the book fund by pounds 300,000. Librarians decided to cancel any fiction purchases that year to protect the non-fiction stock.

Rob Froud, county librarian in Somerset, said: "Our book fund for our 34 libraries is now in the region of pounds 500,000. It should be nearer pounds 900,000."

Jan Ketteringham, of Northallerton Library in North Yorkshire, where both copies of Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres were out on loan, said: "At times we have up to a dozen people waiting for Captain Corelli, which could mean waiting six months." Liverpool Central Library, the United Kingdom's second largest, has one copy of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. It is on loan and has five reservations.

Cardiff Central Library has five copies of each of the following: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Vanity Fair by W M Thackeray, and Hard Times by Charles Dickens, and seven copies of Villette by Charlotte Bronte. None of these is on loan. In contrast, the Cardiff library has just one copy of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, The Beach by Alex Garland, and Longitude by Dava Sobel. In each case, the book is on loan.

Richard Phillips, assistant chief librarian of Cardiff County Library, said: "We have one copy of Fever Pitch; three years ago we would have had three. There are only nine copies countywide."

Guy Daines, professional adviser to the Library Association, said yesterday: "The large decline in book funds means the choice and quality on the bookshelves has suffered. In the National Year of Reading, that is more than ironic. It is a tragedy."

The 10 libraries surveyed: Ashford, Kent; Taunton, Somerset; Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire; Durham City; Northallerton, North Yorkshire; Rotherham Central, South Yorkshire; Liverpool Central; Willesden Green, north-west London; Cardiff County; Edinburgh Central.

Books In Demand

The Independent's findings at ten randomly selected libraries were:

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

18 copies, 12 on loan, five available, one missing

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

10 copies, five on loan, four available, one missing, one reservation

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

16 copies, nine on loan, seven available, one reservation

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

18 copies, 14 on loan, four available, one reservation

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

13 copies, seven on loan, four available, two missing, one reservation

The Beach by Alex Garland

Eight copies, eight on loan, none available, four reservations

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

22 copies, 16 on loan, five available, one missing

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

22 copies, six on loan, 16 available

Longitude by Dava Sobel

13 copies, eight on loan, five available

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

by Louis de Bernieres

20 copies, 17 on loan, three available, seven reservations, one missing