THEY’RE more used to telling you to shush.

But now librarians have been told to keep quiet themselves, after a senior Southampton council officer “gagged” them against speaking out about the biggest library cuts ever.

Jobs, opening hours and services are all facing deep cuts in a bid to save £20m across the city next year.

Today the Daily Echo can reveal how, in a memo which we have seen, library staff have been ordered not to express their point of view in public or if approached by elected city councillors.

Opposition politicians say the move throws democracy in Southampton into question, with some likening it to an authoritarian state like North Korea.

Now leisure boss Cllr Warwick Payne has launched an inquiry into why the council officer sent the memo out.

In the leaked memo, head of libraries David Baldwin warns: “If a councillor from any party attempts to draw you into a discussion about the proposals, politely tell them that you are not able to comment.

“If they are not happy at this response, refer them to me.

“Please let me know if you are approached in this way whatever the outcome.

“We should avoid actively encouraging people to complain as this will undermine the value of the comments the council receives if it becomes known.”

Angry library users are now circulating petitions and a letter writing campaign against the planned cuts, amid fears services could become so run-down they risk being singled out for closure during a future round of budget cuts.

Mr Baldwin admits to staff that the plans are politically controversial, but advises against speaking to the public and media, adding: “I do not want anyone to get into trouble.”

A source within the library service said: “This is not democracy, how can councillors make decisions when they get the opinion of one voice?

“These cuts are being put forward by the head of library services, damaging his own service and staff. “Now he wants to ensure that his is the only voice heard.”

Tory leader Royston Smith said: “I have never seen this happen before and I can understand why people are not happy “It is just wrong. What sanction will there be if they talk to us?”

His colleague, Tory leisure chief Cllr John Hannides, who is tasked with holding the Labour administration to account on library services, said it was “disturbing”.

He said: “All staff are entitled to be part of the budget consultation.”

Rebel councillor Don Thomas, who has formed the breakaway group Labour Councillors Against The Cuts, said: “I found this bewildering. Is this North Korea or Southampton? How dare they.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Adrian Vinson added that library staff should be “free to make those concerns known.”