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The day the bookworms turned

A Slice of Britain: On a day of action to save the nation's libraries, the quiet dignity of protesters in one small village in Middle England speaks volumes. And the historic building they are fighting for is at the heart of their community

There is barely enough room for everyone to squeeze into Irchester Library. More than 150 of the Northamptonshire villagers have come out to voice their fury at proposals to shut it. Its normal scholarly hush is replaced by a muted, angry hubbub but nobody is saying "shush".

Veronica Lane, Irchester's librarian for the past 14 years, is very much at the heart of what goes on here: she is busy checking out books and DVDs throughout the morning, greeting most people by their first name.

The genteel protest is part of a National Day of Action in which thousands of supporters attended events in 95 libraries across Britain, in an attempt to stop what they fear is a mass cull that could see one in five libraries close during the next four years. Authors such as Philip Pullman, Julia Donaldson and Kate Mosse, the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, comedian Phill Jupitus and musician Billy Bragg are among scores of public figures participating in events at their local libraries.

Jupitus worked as a librarian for the morning at St Aubyn Library in Plymouth; Bragg picked up his guitar and headed for Charmouth Library in Dorset, while Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, told Sky News: "If you close all these branches, get rid of these expert librarians, we're going to end up with a population of more illiterate people."

But Irchester itself has no celebrity supporters; the former Liverpool footballer Phil Neal was born here – and he's as close to celebrity as this village comes.

Nevertheless, it has a claim to fame: Irchester was one of 380 libraries financed by the Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie at the beginning of the last century, still the single most generous and influential private benefactor in the history of public libraries.

The 1850 Public Libraries Act was introduced in a bid to "raise educational standards throughout society". In spite of opposition from some leading Tory politicians, public libraries began to spring up across Britain – largely due to sizeable donations from wealthy entrepreneurs such as Carnegie. Irchester, like most Carnegie libraries, has retained the Edwardian style that the philanthropist insisted upon, but its future is now doubtful.

Bunty Garland, 86, has more reason than most to oppose the library's closure. Carnegie was a regular visitor to her grandparents' house in the neighbouring town of Rushden, where he would buy hides from her grandfather's cattle farm. He would stay overnight after visiting the chapel, where he is believed to have occasionally preached. In 1904, Mrs Garland's grandparents persuaded Carnegie to donate £1,200 to the Parish Council on the proviso that the land for the library be donated so that the cost would not be a burden upon the "penny rate". Lady Wantage, who owned most of the village at the time, donated the current site on the village high street.

If the library closed, the Parish Council would retain ownership, but it faces the real risk of losing a bustling social hub, filled with the sound of inquisitive children, and being left with an empty shell.

Mrs Garland, who still uses the 101-year-old library, says: "It would be very sad to lose it now. If they were here, I'm sure my mother and grandmother would be at the forefront of the fight to save it, as people really need it."

The library is one of eight up for closure in the current round of spending cuts by Northamptonshire County Council. Local politicians must find savings of £168m in the next four years, and, like every other council, at least half the savings must be made in the first year. It is this front-loading of the cuts, insisted upon by the Local Government minister, Eric Pickles, that has made libraries and youth projects particularly vulnerable, as they are easier services to "slash and burn" than complex care packages for the elderly and disabled.

For most of the last century, Irchester, which was originally a Roman settlement, was dominated by shoe makers and small-scale farmers. It is now home to around 1,500 households. There is no bookshop, no video shop and no café. As with many public libraries, the very young and the elderly are the most frequent users, but there are plenty of teenagers and working-age professionals among the supporters here today.

Volunteers from the Friends of Irchester Library help out a lot with clubs, home deliveries and events for young and old, but it is Veronica Lane's expertise and personality that has driven the development of the library's popular groups, including the Book Club, Rhyme Time, for pre-schoolers, Silver Service, for the older villagers, Scrabble, and Crochet Knit and Natter – popular with women of all ages. It's a library that can genuinely boast to be at the heart of a community.

Janet Parker, 80, has lived in the village for 33 years. Since her husband died four years ago, the library – the books and the librarian – have become a lifeline to her. "I don't get out a lot, but reading has really helped me these last few years, and coming here and talking to Veronica every week is like a social event.

"I'm so angry at the council. I couldn't get on a bus now, so I'd have nowhere else to go. I don't know what I will do if it closes."

To save their library, villagers must raise £36,900 by tomorrow, something they have been unable to achieve. They have plenty of ideas for fund-raising and alternative library models, but they need more time.

Lauren Smith, of the national group Voices for the Library, says: "Local councils are having to make these decisions so quickly. Once a library is shut it will never reopen. When councils realise what they have done it will be too late."

Jane Badger, an Irchester resident, book dealer and library campaigner, says: "We're not the most beautiful village, we're not a wealthy village, and we haven't got any famous residents to support our campaign. We're an ordinary, working village, but we all love and use our library, and shutting it down would remove one of the very few social places that is open to everyone."

It is survival of the fittest, or at least the richest, but Irchester, which stands out only for its ordinariness, is not going down without a fight.