‘I leave the flat less often’: One month on from library closures, residents face a harsh reality
Those most affected by the closures tell The Gaudie how their lives have changed.
By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco
Ferryhill, 12:20 PM
It’s a dreich afternoon in Aberdeen. A light rain falls as I step off the X7 and turn the corner toward Ferryhill Library. The listed granite building, located at the intersection of Fonthill and Great Southern Roads, has served the community of Ferryhill for twelve decades, ever since it was built in 1903.
That is, until Ferryhill was shuttered in late March, along with five other libraries across the Granite City. Council leaders opted to cut funding to the libraries in their 2023-2024 yearly budget, citing a decrease in footfall as rationale, a characterisation fiercely challenged by campaigners.
Now, as I approach the building, the once-bustling interior is dark. A banner in the window proudly advertises the library's services: 'Adults and Children's books', 'On-line information', 'Word processing.'
Out in front of the library, across a small car park, there are a few benches. I sit.
How have communities adjusted to the closures, one month on?
Six of Aberdeen’s seventeen libraries were closed at the end of March: Cults, Northfield, Kaimhill, Ferryhill, Cornhill, and Woodside. A month later, I reached out to members of the communities these libraries once served to see how they had adjusted to this new reality.
Unsurprisingly, the feelings of those I spoke to matched the grey conditions of my trip to Ferryhill.
'I just stay at home more'
First, I got in touch with Julie, whose story The Gaudie highlighted in early April. Julie, who uses a wheelchair, often visited Woodside Library, seeing the short trip from her nearby home as a welcome opportunity to chat with neighbours and friends.
Now, she tells me, ‘I leave the flat less often… I can't nip to the library to get out of the [house] for a bit. I can't use the internet either…'
When asked last month how people with disabilities, like Julie, could access in-person library services after Woodside closed, council officers pointed to Tillydrone Library, less than a mile away.
But for Julie, this is an untenable solution- the journey in her wheelchair is long and unsafe.
She tells me about one recent trip: ‘The journey is dangerous for me. The kerbs are too high or non-existent. I’ve to go on a busy road. I got too cold coming back. My friend who’s undergoing chemo struggled coming back also. I had her books on my lap to help her.’
What's next for Julie?
She's begun to use the home library service, visited by a roving librarian now and again. While Julie appreciates the visits, they’re simply ‘not the same as browsing the shelves or going in for a natter in person.’
'I just stay at home more,' she says, adding, 'I speak to fewer folk.'
'We won’t be going as often'
Julie’s concerns aren’t unique. Mum of two Raquel Ojeda Kelly, who also lives in Woodside, tells me that the library was an essential part of her family’s life.
Reminiscing about using the library with her daughter, age 6, Raquel says: ‘We would often stop every two weeks to return some books and borrow new ones. This won’t be possible anymore. It’s such a shame as she likes books so much that she now reads books for us at night time, and she also likes to write little stories.’
Raquel, who often attended Bookbug sessions with her young son, found the library an easy place to visit, within walking distance of her home.
Raquel also used the library for her own benefit. 'As an adult and immigrant,' she adds,
'I also enjoy finding books in the library and meeting friends. I have met other parents in the area and that has made me feel connected to this community and others who are parents like me.’
Raquel, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, explains that like Julie, travelling to Tillydrone Library simply doesn’t work for her.
‘I can’t always walk far distances as chemotherapy makes it hard for me to walk, and the way back to my house is uphill. I haven’t borrowed any books since our Woodside Library closed… I already know we won’t be going as often as we used to go before.’
'A hammer blow to communities'
Hayden Lorimer, an academic at the University of Edinburgh and a Woodside resident, tells me the library had an immense impact on the people of the community.
‘I feel its loss every day,’ Hayden says. ‘A library is a place that makes a neighbourhood more relatable. Ours had a gravitational pull, drawing in all sorts of folk. Pensioners popping in to enjoy a wee chat with the librarians. The after-school kids, in need of a quiet spot for homework and a free PC. Toddlers and babes in arms, learning stories, songs and rhymes at the Bookbug session. Older card-carrying bookworms, the likes of myself, picking up and dropping off their borrowed items…’
These ‘precious’ moments are precisely why Hayden doesn’t understand how Council chiefs could see the libraries as ‘disposable.’
‘Funding for libraries, one of our most vital public services,’ he comments, ‘must be seen as an investment in the life of a neighbourhood, and never a burden.’
Similarly, David Laing, a community councillor from Milltimber, tells me that the closure of Cults Library hit his community hard, as well as others throughout Aberdeen.
‘The recent closure of six libraries across Aberdeen has been a hammer blow to communities across the city,’ David says.
‘Many of the libraries were well utilised spaces that offered far more than just access to books and literature,’ he adds.
‘Many of the libraries were also warm hubs, social spaces and venues for a variety of activities such as digital learning sessions for the elderly and book bug reading groups for children. Removing these services from areas of high depression or communities with significant elderly populations has had a detrimental impact so far and the absence of the closed libraries will continue to be felt…’
'It’s the small things that make the biggest difference.'
Finally, I spoke to Laurie Mackay, a children's book writer and reviewer who lives in Cornhill.
Laurie has chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition which causes extreme tiredness.
Despite her condition, which limits her mobility, Laurie enjoyed going to Cornhill Library whenever she was able.
'Cornhill library had free parking right outside the entrance, she explains. '[It] had the added benefit of being on all one level so it was much more accessible.'
'On my ‘good days’ I could go on my own without a wheelchair and just sit on the floor browsing all the books for a short time, before coming home and napping to recover from being out. It made such a difference to my mental health.'
Now, Laurie tells me, if she wants to go to a library in person, she'll have to make arrangements to rent a wheelchair and travel into the city centre.
While Laurie's partner is able to pick up books for her from the Central Library, it's not the same.
'I’m so lucky to have someone willing to do that for me, but sometimes it just depresses me because it’s yet another thing I’m dependent on others for,' Laurie says.
'I can’t stop by the information desk to pick up leaflets on local community events or give my voice to a survey they are doing. Plus I’m missing out on stumbling across books from browsing or chatting to the library staff.'
Laurie explains how Cornhill Library provided a number of services to the surrounding community, including free Internet, digital services, period products, and food waste bags.
For Laurie, libraries create a unique opportunity for people to come together and build community.
'If you are socially isolated, the ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ you get from the librarian as you come and go from the free to access place might be the only in-person interaction you have where someone acknowledges your existence in this world,' Laurie tells me.
'Sometimes, it’s the small things that make the biggest difference.'
With the Council’s SNP and Liberal Democrat-led administration showing no signs of reversing their decision, campaigners are primed to take the local authority to court.
In a statement last month, campaigners, who are also fighting to reopen Bucksburn Swimming Pool, said that the Council’s decision ‘appears to be unlawful’ and may violate the Equality Act’s protections for children, disabled people, and older persons.
A motion by independent Councillor Marie Boulton, which would fund the libraries using money diverted from the Council’s Beach Master Plan, will be considered by the Finance and Resources Committee later this month. Campaigners hope to make deputations at that meeting, something denied them at an emergency Council summit prior to the closures.
For now, however, the libraries remain closed- and the communities once served by these facilities continue to experience the consequences.
Andrew Carnegie once said: ‘A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.’
But what happens to a community when a library is taken away? Ask Raquel or Laurie or Hayden. They know- even if the Council doesn’t.
Back in Ferryhill, the sun peeks through the clouds.
I snap a few photos, and leave. After all, what’s a library without people?