Leading article: Wise words

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'If you have a garden and a library," wrote the great Roman orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, "you have everything you need". In an age of Ground Force and Alan Titchmarsh, we seem to have the gardening side of that equation covered. But on the libraries front, we are faring much less impressively.

As we report today, 40 British public libraries have been forced to close over the past two years. And those that remain are under growing pressure. Some are having to lay off permanent staff. Others are suffering from a shortage of books and dilapidated buildings.

When it comes to discussion of the state of our public libraries, the debate often turns reactionary. There are usually complaints about the fact that many libraries now contain computers, or lend CDs and DVDs. Such grumbling is misplaced and unhelpful.

There is little sense in attempting to preserve in aspic the Victorian model of the public library, complete with dusty tomes and stern, bespectacled custodians of the shelves.

When public libraries were first established in this country in 1850, they were startlingly modern institutions. There is nothing wrong with libraries using the latest technology to impart knowledge and a love of learning.

What really matters is the "idea" of the public library: a civic space for learning and self-education. That is a concept as radical and empowering today as it was in the days when Cicero might have gone to look up a scroll at the "temple of wisdom". We should be looking after our own "temples of wisdom" rather better.

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