Roman Catholic fury at sale of historic library

Some of Britain's most notable Roman Catholic writers are joining forces to save a historic collection of books which is about to be broken up.

The Catholic Central Library contains a collection of rare 18th-and 19th-century pamphlets as well as first editions of works by Catholic writers such as Evelyn Waugh, GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Mgr Ronald Knox and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It is to be closed on Tuesday after a decision was made to sell off its premises in London.

Novelists Piers Paul Read and Alice Thomas Ellis and the Catholic politicians Lord Longford and Lord Alton have all expressed dismay at the closure of the library, which opened in 1959, behind Westminster Cathedral. The dispersal of its 65,000 volumes was described by Ms Thomas Ellis as "an absolute scandal which is being repeated in libraries all over the country. Great works are just being consigned to the rubbish skip."

The library, which has more than 1,000 subscribers and a valuable reference section and reading room, has been run by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, a New York-based religious order, which says it has been forced to give it up by financial pressures.

In a letter to the subscribers, Cardinal Basil Hume, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and head of the English Catholic Church, said: "I have made further attempts to preserve the library in its present state, but have failed... I could not risk launching an appeal which I believe would not have been successful."

But several prominent Catholics and subscribers say they were not fully consulted over the closure and sale, and are keen to set up a trust to ensure that the collection remains intact. If they fail, the collection is likely to be split between Allen Hall, a Roman Catholic seminary in Chelsea, and Heythrop College, part of London University.

Lord Alton, the former Liberal Democrat MP David Alton, described the loss of the library as "an unmitigated tragedy" and"criminal folly". He said: "This historical collection will be dismembered and made inaccessible to the public. Given the renewed interest in the Catholic novel, it would be an unmitigated disaster. It is madness to allow a building in the heart of London to disappear."

Piers Paul Read said: "The great thing about the library was that it was open to all Catholics. I doubt if ordinary Catholics will have access to a place like Heythrop College."

Fr Ian Ker, a Catholic priest and Cardinal Newman biographer, described the situation as an "absolute cock-up" and added: "The big mistake was handing control of the library to the Cardinal. The Friars showed a naivety which is typical of religious orders; they should have turned to the subscribers."

Westminster Cathedral sources hit back. One said: "The running costs of the library are nearly pounds 100,000 a year. You need to employ two or three staff full-time. It is a lot of money. These people should put money where their mouth is."