Libraries gave us power, the Manic Street Preachers sang at the height of their Britpop success.

It was a reference to the high, community-minded ideals with which libraries were founded, an attempt to give ordinary members of the public a chance to read and become informed, something that had previously been the province of the rich.

Of course, that power hasn’t always been evenly shared, and for people with learning disabilities – who often struggle with reading – libraries can sometimes seem intimidating, offering very few books or materials in accessible, “easy read” versions. That’s what makes Kent Libraries’ Making A Difference project so unusual and so welcome. Amidst stories of libraries facing closure as a result of spending cuts, this project shows how they can still be incredibly valuable resources for the community, even in the age of the Internet.


The project manages to be both imaginative and very simple. As well as more typical but still vital activities such as reading groups, IT sessions, coffee and chat meetings, the project has actively sought the direct involvement in library work of adults with learning disabilities, providing volunteering, training and employment opportunities.


The project gives people with learning disabilities – who are vastly more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population – a chance to develop new skills, demonstrating that they can contribute value to their community at a time when libraries are facing such huge challenges. No doubt it will encourage many of them to work on reading skills, sometimes a major first step towards a job, as well as a wonderful pleasure in itself. Even better, some of the adults who have participated in the project are now employed as paid librarians.


David Cameron’s Big Society programme has met with a great deal of criticism, and may well end up discredited. There are understandable reasons for cynicism – encouraging a sense of community while cutting local funding is hard to reconcile – but it would be a shame if the values that lie behind the Big Society were also discredited, if the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.


After all, the idea of encouraging local communities, government and the voluntary sector to work together on projects that create a fairer and more socially conscious country is something to be applauded. The Making A Difference project is a prime example of this, and truly lives up to its name.


For more information on the project, you can find contact details on the Kent County Council website.


Jaime Gill, head of press and public affairs.