Looking in from the street on a rainy day, Ferryhill Library isn’t the most inviting picture.

The Aberdeen City Council sign out front is faded and half-hidden. Bushes press against the centuries-old stone walls.

What can be seen of the inside is equally grim – tattered window blinds, bleak walls and empty shelves.

It doesn’t look like a building that was a bustling community hub as recently as March. Nor does it look ready to reopen if the city council resurrects it at their December meeting.

But when 10-year-old schoolgirl Charlotte Jolly looks at Ferryhill Library, she sees a space worth saving.

“I loved going to Ferryhill Library to socialise with friends, enjoy the peace and quiet and read books.”

The Herald: Directions to nearby branches, bittersweet thanks from staff and locked doors have greeted visitors to six Aberdeen libraries since March.Directions to nearby branches, bittersweet thanks from staff and locked doors have greeted visitors to six Aberdeen libraries since March. (Image: Garrett Stell)

Charlotte has missed these opportunities since March when the city council closed six library branches – Cornhill, Cults, Ferryhill, Kaimhill, Northfield and Woodside.

She is now one of the many voices of the Save Aberdeen Libraries campaign.

READ MORE: Pupil recruits bestselling author to Aberdeen library campaign

The library closures were always contentious. The budget process was met with protests in the streets and heated debates in council chambers.

The libraries were among the many controversial casualties, with pools, gyms, bus routes and art programmes getting the axe alongside planned hikes in council tax and school meal prices.

READ MORE: Protestors against library closures at Aberdeen council meeting

When legal challenges to the decision-making process stirred up trouble for the council, the city opened a public consultation. Its stated goal is “to understand the impact that these library closures have had on communities and in particular, any impacts related to protected characteristics.”

When the city council reconvenes in December, they will review the consultation results and reconsider the closures. On paper, this leaves room for the reopening of some or all of the closed branches.

However, the Save Aberdeen Libraries group faces imposing obstacles.

First, they must convince the public – who saw closure notices plastered to windows in the spring  – that the libraries aren’t a lost cause.

READ MORE: Aberdeen library closure campaigners 'consider legal action'

Second, the six branches have been largely stripped of furniture and resources.

Reopening will not be a simple matter of unlocking doors and deploying staff. It will take hours of work to relocate, transport and reinstall what has been removed.  

When asked about hauling away library resources, a city council spokesman said that the buildings were cleared so that they would be ready to return to management by their corporate landlord. 

“This included the careful removal of all library stock, furniture, and fittings to ready the buildings for return.

“Library stock has been reallocated to the remaining libraries where possible, with remaining stock stored securely. The same goes for the furniture and fittings that can be reused within the library service.”     

There was no response when asked about a potential timeline for restoring services, should the council decide in favour of the branches in December.

Third, they need to convince the council to reverse a difficult budget decision in the face of new fiscal trouble.

After cutting £46.6 million from this year’s budget, Aberdeen City has announced that it is planning to trim at least £40 million more next year.

Finally, campaigners feel they are fighting a misunderstanding of what libraries represent and the services that they provide.

In short, libraries are not just for borrowing books.

The council's consultation documents ask residents what library services they used while their local branch was open. The list of options – ranging from craft workshops to IT services – is three pages long.

Over the years, the six closed branches served a diverse community in diverse ways. Now those diverse voices are sharing what the library meant for them, and hoping it will be enough to convince councillors.

Although Charlotte loved visiting Ferryhill to pick up the latest David Walliams or attend a Bookbug session when she was younger, she also liked to visit with her friends.

For many children her age, libraries represent a safe space close to home to exercise a first taste of independence.

Libraries are free, protected from the weather, and monitored by librarians who not only help access resources but also – crucially for parents – are responsible adults who know their communities.

For adults, libraries represent a warm place to escape the weather. A safe place to search and apply for jobs.

Eibhilin Macphail, 34, was a regular at Ferryhill Library until it closed. Now travelling to the Central Library, she relies on the library for her job, which involves preparing and submitting paperwork.

"I go to the library to use the faster computers, free Wi-Fi, printing and scanning for at least two hours every week."

Since the closures in the spring, she said the pressure on Central has increased and she isn't always able to find space.

"I spend a lot of time at the library. But there are a lot more people using the library as a free space to work, study or just spend time since the six libraries were closed.

"Sometimes all the tables and chairs in Central Library are taken in the evening. Before, you could always find a seat somewhere."

The services Eibhilin uses so regularly are particularly critical for vulnerable communities.

The Herald: Woodside Library, more than 100 years old, is one of the six that has closed its doors. Standing across the street from a primary school, it was a place for children and parents to gather for activities or just to escape the weather.Woodside Library, more than 100 years old, is one of the six that has closed its doors. Standing across the street from a primary school, it was a place for children and parents to gather for activities or just to escape the weather. (Image: Garrett Stell)

Scottish Government statistics show that some areas affected by the closures have high rates of deprivation, a measurement that indicates limited resources and opportunities.

And this before their local library branches closed.

Immigrants also have a special relationship with the library.

Originally from Venezuela and now living in Woodside, campaigner Raquel Ojeda Kelly said that libraries are an important resource for immigrants, many of whom were not able to advocate against the closures.

“Immigrants are feeling so lost. By the time we hear about something, it’s already happened.

“As a mom, I used to come to Woodside Library a lot with my children. But now, if I want the same resources I have to take a bus.

“Because of my mobility issues, I can’t always go too far, and that also involves money.

“It takes away a lot of opportunities for families, children and immigrants. It really is a loss to all of us.”

She said that for someone who struggles with English, being confronted at the door by even the friendliest face can be overwhelming.

But when she arrived at the library, no one questioned her. At a café, or even a community centre, there’s always a gatekeeper at the desk or the register.

When I travelled to Aberdeen to meet with members of Save Aberdeen Libraries, I saw the consequences of closed branches in person.

Caught in the wind and rain, I intended to meet advocates at a community centre in Cornhill. But the room was booked and the drop-in space wasn’t available.

The alternative was a nearby café. To get there, we drove past the Cornhill Library.

Once at the café, another barrier: Seats are only for patrons.

After a few pounds spent, we were finally able to talk.

Beyond arguments about resources, many campaigners argue that they don’t face a fair fight.

First, as Raquel Ojeda Kelly explained, it’s easier to convince someone to join a fight to save the libraries than to reopen them.

“People have given up on the library fight because the idea is that they are closed already.”

Furthermore, they say that holding a consultation process after the fact is not the same as the opportunity to speak to councillors before they make their decision.

Second, advocates claim that the council decided to close the six branches without considering important information.

According to Aberdeen City Council statements, the library closures were driven by usage data, including the number of visits and public events, along with Wi-Fi and computer access.

Because the council has not publicised the raw data used to make their decision, advocates have collected it themselves. Laurie Mackay, the de facto communications tsar for the Save Aberdeen Libraries campaign, has doggedly gathered data from council records on library usage, especially in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and closures during lockdown.

According to that data, five of the six closed branches are in the bottom half of Aberdeen libraries in terms of total footfall.

But Ms Mackay said that the situation is complicated. After lockdown, not every branch reopened immediately.

While Central Library opened its doors in Spring 2021, her local branch in Cornhill did not reopen until October of that year.

And when it did reopen, it was on reduced hours – only 12 hours per week to start, rising to 21 hours in April 2022.

“I worked out that there had been a 28 per cent average reduction in library hours across the city from before libraries closed (because of Covid-19).

“So it isn’t fair to compare total footfall of Cornhill, or Woodside, with Central or Aryhall which opened much more quickly and more regularly.”

And, she added, at Cornhill and other branches, library hours were not only reduced but inconsistent.

Ms Mackay said that she went months without realising her branch was partially open on Saturday.

Although changes to library opening times were advertised on council webpages and elsewhere, many residents who rely on library services don’t have access to the internet or up-to-date information – unless they’re physically at the library.

The public consultation for the six closed libraries will close on November 6. There are only a few focus group meetings remaining, and only a few more opportunities for library advocates to get their views to the council.

Rebecca Diansangu, also from Woodside, recognises that the city’s financial picture is bleak.

After visiting several of the closed branches and seeing furniture, books and resources stripped away, she has a hard time seeing the consultation as anything but an afterthought to tick a box.

“We feel we’ve been given up on in Woodside. We’re very upset about the way that they’ve pulled the plug, and it’s like Woodside and these other neighbourhoods don’t matter.

“That’s how it feels to us.”