MORE than £350,000 is owed to Essex County Council from fines on overdue library books.

Nearly 200,000 items are overdue from the county’s libraries.

Among them is a textbook which has been overdue for 25 years.

Despite the length of time the Open College book has been on loan, the council said it would only charge a maximum of £7 per item.

In total, the authority is owed £357,346 in library fines.

A spokeswoman said small charges were "difficult to collect", and many users stopped returning to the library once they had overdue items.

She added: "We do contact customers by text, email and letter to remind them about fines and when they come into the library.

"If they fail to settle we will stop library users from borrowing more books, however we find that some customers will not return to the library once when they have overdue books."

A 12-week consultation into the future of Essex libraries is under way with the council saying it wanted an "online 24-7 service".

If the proposals go ahead, 25 of its 74 libraries could close with volunteers running a further 18 branches.

But the council has insisted the shake-up of the service, which would save £2million, is “not about saving money".

The spokeswoman added: “It’s about ensuring the service is fit for now and the future, and a better fit with people’s lives.”

However, the proposals have sparked anger among many communities who fear their libraries will close down for good.

John Akker MBE, who is campaigning to save West Mersea Library, said: "This outstanding sum is very, very significant in relation to the objective of the county council to save £2million.

"If they were more stringent in the collection of payment of loans then the need for these savings would be significantly reduced."

West Mersea's library faces closure within two years unless volunteers wish to run it.

On Saturday, residents took out as many library books as they possibly could at Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea libraries in a bid to protest proposals for the two branches to be run by volunteers.

The maximum amount of items library card holders can borrow at once is 14.