The British Council has been immortalised in a string of novels, including The Third Man by Graham Greene, and The Magus by John Fowles, but is accused of turning its back on Britain's literary heritage over a decision to close a score of libraries worldwide.
The council's staff and authors, including award-winning novelist Fay Weldon, are furious at what they see as a "short-sighted" and "philistine" attitude to literature, after it decided to divert book funding to the internet and other information services.
Council research has found that its target audience between the ages of 18 and 35 is less interested in borrowing books than surfing the internet.
A painful programme of library closures around the world has led to accusations that the council is downgrading reading as a cultural pastime, and starving readers overseas of access to classic and modern British books. Council staff are unhappy at what they see as a "step too far".
Countries targeted for library closures are Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal and, in Europe, Cyprus, Serbia, Georgia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Libraries have already closed in Kuwait, Turkey, Italy, Germany and Belgium.
Weldon (left), who was shortlisted for the Booker prize and has read in many of the libraries is one of the main critics of the move. She said: "It seems total madness. I believe the way to win hearts and minds is through literature that seals people's empathy with one another."
A British Council spokeswoman said: "Our main target audience is aged 18 to 35 and this group is much more effectively reached by a whole host of other activities face-to-face and online. Libraries are only a tiny part of what we do."Reuse content