MORE than two hundred people congregated in Winchester city centre to show their support for Hampshire's library service which is threatened by cuts.

Unison, the trade union organising the demonstration, invited supporters to bring along their favourite book for a mass "Read Out" at the Buttercross on Monday (April 16) at 12.30pm.

Some 4,000 residents have already signed a petition protesting against plans to axe 27 out of 60 professional librarians and downgrade a further 17 to "library officers" with pay cuts of up to £6,700.

The county council says it needs to make £1.2m savings to balance the budget in 2007/8.

Trade unions argue the cuts will mean a poorer quality library service for residents with fewer qualified librarians to encourage reading with school visits, author events and reading groups.

The demonstration began with a loud "shush" as campaigners sat down to read for 10 minutes in the High Street as bemused-looking shoppers walked by.

Speakers included Winchester explorer, John Pilkington, author of An Adventure on the Old Silk Road and An Englishman in Patagonia and James Riordan, author of Rebel Cargo.

Mr Riordan, who lives in Portsmouth, said: "What on earth can have happened that has caused mild-mannered, kind, caring and extremely helpful librarians to take up the cudgel not only for themselves but for thousands of people in Hampshire that use the service."

Meanwhile Mr Pilkington, a Winchester resident and library user for more than 30 years, said: "We know library use is falling but cutting books and qualified staff is no way to encourage people back into the libraries."

Mr Pilkington called for library chiefs to freeze the cuts until after a long-delayed county council library scrutiny panel on the future of the service publishes its findings.

Steve Squibbs, Unison steward, said: "It has been a fantastic turn-out and hopefully it will send a strong message to management forcing through the cuts."

Among the Winchester residents taking part were pensioner, Margaret Macfarlane.

Mrs Macfarlane, a library user for more than 60 years, said: "I think you have to man libraries sufficiently and you need properly qualified staff to give advice to readers."

Library staff took part in a two-day strike last month closing 18 branches across the county, including Winchester, Basingstoke, Fordingbridge and Lyndhurst.

A second strike was called off by Unison officials after library managers agreed to hold talks.

People are also being invited to sign an on-line petition to defend the library service at