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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

From across Britain today came a cry for help. Nearly 100 local elected officials wrote a letter to the Times of London. Their message: that the government's austerity measures are too austere and that they're being forced to cut critical services.

Among the toughest decisions the local politicians face is whether to shut down their public libraries. About 400 or so have been targeted for closure already, sparking a public outcry across the country.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: There was a time in Britain, say 160 years ago, when some in parliament didn't believe in public libraries at all. The worry was if the working class read books, they'd get dangerous ideas and rise up against the government. That's not the debate today. But this is still sensitive ground for politicians.

Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that his government is happy to invest in libraries if they evolve.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON (United Kingdom): We all know a truth about libraries, which is those that will succeed are the ones when they wake up to the world of new technology, of the Internet and everything else, and investment goes in. That is what needs to happen.

GREENE: The Labour Party's Ed Miliband saw the opening.

Mr. ED MILIBAND (Leader of the Opposition, United Kingdom): Speaker, only this prime minister could blame the libraries for closing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

GREENE: And we came to see one of the libraries that may well close. It's in a picturesque little town called Stony Stratford, just northwest of London. The library's right in the heart of the town, on a street with brick homes and little shops.

What is this bag of books?

Ms. SARAH RICHARDSON: It's - what books are they, do you mean?

GREENE: Are you returning all of them?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yeah, we're returning all of them, yes, yeah. We took them out a couple of weeks ago. There's various bits in there, some for the boys, some for me, some for my boyfriend.

GREENE: For Sarah Richardson, this was not just any bag of books. It was her small part in a public uprising. The residents of Stony Stratford organized last month, and together, checked out all 16,000 books from the library. The bare shelves, they hoped, would send a message that the place has to stay. Richardson, a single mom, relies on the library's free computers. There's no Internet at home.

Mr. RICHARDSON: We did have, and then me and my husband split up, so the computer went.

GREENE: Officials in Milton Keynes, the region that includes Stony Stratford, will make their decision about the library on February 22nd. A spokesman for the regional council said deep cuts in funding from London have put unprecedented pressures on elected officials, forcing painful decisions.

Still, among all the austerity measures being proposed, this one seems to have generated the most widespread emotion. Lauren Smith is helping to run a national campaign called Voices for the Library. This is the message she hears from people.

Ms. LAUREN SMITH (Voices for the Library): I've never, ever campaigned against anything before. I've never gone out with placards. I've never marched. But do you know what? This, this is important, and this is what we really need to stand up against because this can't happen.

GREENE: Smith said politicians in London don't appreciate the role libraries play as gathering spots for young children to read...

Ms. SMITH: ...all the way to a 93-year-old lady whose husband had died. She only spoke to one person on a Tuesday, when she went to the library, and that was the person in the library branch, behind the counter.

GREENE: All is not lost if a library closes. That's Roy Clare's message. As CEO of Britain's Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, he's been advising local officials. Sometimes, he said, closing a library can make economic sense, especially when there are good alternatives like re-opening as part of a local museum.

Mr. ROY CLARE (Chief Executive Officer, Museums, Libraries and Archives Council): And it's really important that we don't end up with museums, and libraries and other forms of center all behaving as though they're utterly independent and different.

From a public point of view, they're often good places to go, to browse, to be, to learn, to get information. Well, why not put them together?

GREENE: The people out fighting for the libraries are open to options like that. In the meantime, though, they are determined to protect every last library they can. One of the biggest demonstrations was last weekend, when an army of authors hit the road, including a writer of children's books, John Dougherty.

Mr. JOHN DOUGHERTY (Writer): I've just done a session at Matson Library. We're about to head off to Brockworth Library, which is the next stop on our tour, and we're going to get in the car right now.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

GREENE: As he drove the rolling Cotswold Hills of southwest England, Dougherty said he just wants people to realize the permanence of decisions like this.

Mr. DOUGHERTY: If you lay off your staff and sell off your library buildings, then when the good times come, you have nothing.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: He's got an old song he wrote, and he's been performing it at each stop. He hopes it's getting the point across.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOUGHERTY: Put the knife down. You can't take a piece of our town.

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, London.

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