“YOU don’t know the value of what you are looking after.”

That was the message to Oxfordshire County Council from award-winning author Philip Pullman campaigning to save local library branches.

Hundreds of people packed into a public meeting at Oxford Town Hall, organised by the Anti Cuts Alliance, to hear Mr Pullman’s emotive speech.

The council has proposed closing 20 out of its 43 libraries to save £2m a year.

But Mr Pullman, who lives in Cumnor, told the meeting on Thursday night that the council should leave libraries alone.

He said: “They are too precious to destroy.”

The author of His Dark Materials, who was given standing ovation, was also scathing about the council’s proposal to allow volunteers to run libraries.

“If anyone has the time and energy to work for nothing for a good cause, they are already doing it,” he said.

“People who want to serve the public will be allowed to bid for a central pot, sit up and beg for it like little dogs and wag their tails when they get a bit.

“What I hate about the bidding culture is it sets one community, one group, one school, against another.”

He said libraries from Battersea Park Road, in London, to Botley, had played a vital role in his life.

And even now, the world-famous writer said he relied on library staff for a helping hand. He said: “I was trying to find out where all the rivers and streams were in Oxford for a book I am writing, The Book of Dust.

“I went to the Central Library and there, with the help of staff, I was able to find out what I wanted to know.”

And Mr Pullman had a final message for county council leader Keith Mitchell, who had suggested authors should declare a “vested interest” when speaking out about libraries.

“Yes, I am writing a book. Yes, I hope it will make some money but I am not defending libraries for money but for love,” he said.

Oxford East Labour MP Andrew Smith said a school pupil in Blackbird Leys had written to him to say the estate’s library needed better provision for children doing their homework.

Mr Smith said: “We can only imagine why a young child was in the library doing his homework. The question we need to ask is what message does it send to him to take away that secure, local space for learning?”

Plans to close almost half of the county’s libraries, form part of Conservative-run County Hall’s bid to cut £119m from its spending over the next four years, as a result of Government cuts reducing the amount of money the council receives to fund its services.

The council's cabinet is set to approve the authority’s 2011-12 budget on Tuesday.