AS THE NUTTER administration prepares to ask a court for approval to shutter 11 Philadelphia libraries as part of a cost-cutting plan, a national treasure just outside the city limits is on the verge of collapse.

Delaware County's Darby Free Library, which was founded in 1743 and is believed to be the oldest continuously operating public library in America, will be forced to close its doors at year's end if somebody doesn't write a fat check, the Daily News has learned.

"We're on the chopping block," said Susan Borders, director of the library at 10th and Main streets, near the Southwest Philly border. "We thought we may have had four years left, but after going over our finances, we only have this year."

Founded by 29 Quaker townsmen, the library received its first shipment of 45 volumes from London in November 1743, with the assistance of botanist John Bartram.

"It's older than our country," said Raymond Trent, a longtime bibliographic assistant at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has donated books, DVDs and other reference materials to Darby's library.

"I appreciate the phone call, but to receive news like this is devastating," Trent told a reporter yesterday.

He was preparing to donate another shipment of books, including Michelle Obama's biography.

"Since I grew up in Darby, it was my way of giving back to the community," Trent said.

"This comes as really bad news to my ears, because I have poured my heart and soul into trying to make Darby library one of the best libraries around."

Michael Race, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which funds local libraries, said that the Darby Free Library is the state's longest-operating public library. He said that his department is unaware of any library in the United States that predates it.

"It would be a tragedy if they have to close it," said Lindy Wardell, president of the Darby Borough Historical and Preservation Society.

Some books from its original collection - including John Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and Sir Walter Raleigh's The History of the World - are still displayed in the two-story brick building, built by Charles Bonsall in 1872 at a cost of $8,895.54. Others are at the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 as a subscription library.

While the historical significance of Darby's library - located in a rough-and-tumble town that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad - cannot be overstated, there is also a practical reason to keep it open, supporters say.

It provides high-speed Internet access to the borough of 10,000 residents, some of whom can't afford a computer, and a safe haven for schoolchildren to do research and homework, said Jan Haigis, who sits on the Darby Library Company board.

"It keeps them off occasionally mean streets," Haigis said.

"They pour in here every day with their papers and homework," said Shelly McNear, 48, a former Philadelphia teacher who visits the library several times a week with her 11-year-old daughter. McNear said that having a library in the neighborhood encourages her daughter and other kids to read.

The library also runs programs for children and adults.

"It's easier for us to make it a family thing," said McNear, who was checking her e-mail yesterday at a computer in the library and hadn't heard of the dire financial situation.

The library has more than 10,000 books, but it also serves as a local access point to the 1.5 million books at the 27 other libraries in the Delaware County Library System, because books can be shipped from one building to another.

The Darby Free Library had survived on private contributions and an old endowment.

In the 1990s, voters approved a dedicated real-estate tax for the library that typically generates between $18,000 and $20,000 a year, Borders said.

It also receives about $28,000 a year from the state, but that money is contingent on adequate local funding.

Borders said that the library had been using interest from its endowment to close the funding gap, but in recent years it has been dipping into the endowment itself - withdrawing about $20,000 a year - to cover operating expenses and capital improvements.

This year, expenses are projected at $85,353, which will create a $27,653 shortfall.

"If it does not get support now, it will not survive," Borders wrote in a summary to the Darby Library Company board at last week's meeting, when the possible closure was announced.

It is unlikely that the borough could bail out the library. The national economic downturn has forced it to implement a hiring freeze for the year and to cap spending on part-time police officers, among other cost-saving measures.

"Maybe a fundraiser or, like the fire company does, send a letter to everybody's house asking for a donation," said Borough Council President Janice Davis. "That's what I thought would be a good thing. It would be worth a try. We have to keep it open."

But the level of state funding that libraries will receive in the next fiscal year is uncertain, Race said.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter is asking Commonwealth Court to overrule last month's Common Pleas Court ruling that blocked him from closing 11 branches.

Library patrons and three Council members managed to halt the closures with a lawsuit, but Nutter says that they are necessary to balance the city budget.

The Darby library was once the subject of a question on the TV game show "Jeopardy," Borders said. Now its existence is in jeopardy.

Trent said that Darby must find a way to keep its library open.

Or someone with deep pockets, who understands its value, needs to step up to the plate.

"I just hope," he said, "that Darby library is able to hang in there."

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this report.

Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to the Darby Library Company, P.O. Box 164, Darby, PA 19023.