HAMPSHIRE’S library book budget has been slashed by more than half-a-million pounds, as unions warn the service is a “soft target” for cuts by councils.

Librarians are protesting against plans to axe 65 out of 463 library posts to avoid a £1.3m overspend on the £18m budget this year.

Now it has emerged bosses “kept back” £530,000 from the £2.6m fund for buying books, journals, DVDs and other materials to balance the 2009-10 library service budget.

The cash could have bought about 53,000 hardbacks or 106,000 paperbacks — 2,000 for each of the county’s 53 libraries in 2009-10.

Critics say it is no surprise fewer people are visiting libraries if they can’t find the books they want on library shelves.

The council says the £530,000 was used to meet staff costs (£359,000) and to buy books for Basingstoke Discovery Centre and Waterlooville Library (£171,000) when they are completed in 2010-11.

But Lib Dem opposition spokesman for libraries, Cllr Peter Chegwyn, said: “It is a massive chunk of the book budget.

“We have been kept totally in the dark about this. It has never been reported to councillors so far as I know, and we have not had a chance to debate it.” The job cuts include library managers, supervisors, assistant supervisors, library officers and two prison librarians at Winchester and Gosport.

County chiefs have pledged no libraries will close or opening hours be cut, but librarians say the service will still be reduced.

At a Unison meeting at Winchester Guildhall last week, dozens of members agreed to carry out a consultative ballot to see if their 300 members would be willing to take strike action.

Unison has launched a campaign to show the public how job cuts will affect their library service.