Moments of Closure

Woodside Library is Aberdeen’s oldest. It first opened to the public in 1883 – the gift of Sir John Anderson, an ageing industrialist – and was shuttered a few months shy of its 140th anniversary. Built in grey granite, signature stone of the city’s civic realm, the library interior is bright and airy. Book-lined walls on all sides of the reading room rise to meet high-set windows, crowned by a vaulted ceiling of exposed beams and redwood timbering. Something about it lifts the spirits. The library is, or rather was, a short walk up the road from where I live, and its loss is felt daily. I grow sullen at the sight of the laminated poster left pinned to the front door. Aberdeen City Council gave only a brief notice about the closure plan. On evening dog-walks, I pass the pillared entry-gates, staring up at the ironwork where in the library’s earliest Victorian days a ladder-toting lamp-lighter would have paid a dusk-hour visit to do the necessaries. 

The thing about a library is that it lends coherence to a community. It centres the map. Woodside had a gravitational pull, drawing in all sorts of folk. You’d see pensioners warming themselves up first thing while chatting with the librarians. By mid-morning, it was mums, toddlers and babes still in arms, learning their first stories, songs and rhymes at the Bookbug Club. Later in the day the floor would be scattered with the coats and bags of the after-school kids who used the space to do their homework. And then there are the library-lifers, picking up or dropping off their latest stash of borrowed items. Woodside did all of this. It brought people together in ways that were about more than books and reading, though books and reading were at the heart of it. It was a place that people could turn to if they were at a loss, or just a loose end. The same is said by regular users from Aberdeen’s other five branch libraries summarily earmarked for ‘decommissioning’ in a budget of cuts announced earlier this spring.  Libraries are the public realm. Now we’re all at a loss.

One of the unsettling aspects of the closure is the idea, offered by an elected representative for the Woodside ward, that a library is simply a building – a disposable asset in straitened times. At a Special Meeting of Aberdeen City Council, there were gasps of disbelief in the public gallery at hearing what passes for local democracy. Councillors closed ranks along party lines. It was less a debate than a blame game where, depending on allegiance, ultimate accountability lay with Holyrood or Westminster. Flimsy defences were mounted instead for vainglorious city redevelopment projects, each with a terrible record of overspend, and only the vaguest assurance given about a future citywide review of library services. To cap it all, technical measures were triggered at the meeting to prevent ordinary people’s voices from being heard. Library campaigners, anticipating such chicanery, pulled on zip-mouthed emoji facemasks. The Lord Provost was unimpressed. Returning from lunch to preside over afternoon business, he wished to press home a distinction between, a meeting held in public, and a public meeting. A warning was then issued that any repeat of the silent protest would result in ejections from the City Chambers. Of late, such conduct has become the talk of the town. The online archive of Council Meeting recordings hasn’t always been such a ratings hit.


For a city long trumpeted as Europe’s oil and gas capital (then rebranded as the UK’s energy transition hub), Aberdeen now finds itself in reduced circumstances. An estimated £450 billion has flowed through this city since the discovery of fossil fuel reserves deep beneath the North Sea. But the failure to secure any lasting civic dividend is systemic, and decades long. The great bulk of profits accrued from oil and gas went the way of multinational corporations and their shareholder communities. Tax revenues from energy production became a slush-fund for the state. Successive governments channelled oil wealth into military spending, transport infrastructures, sclerotic rounds of regional investment, or culverted cash into tax-break schemes benefitting the highest earners. Northeast Scotland’s local authorities – where energy giants and captains of industry continue to exert considerable political influence – have been the last to benefit from this trusted version of trickledown economics. Our North Sea neighbours Norway and Denmark have done it very differently, prioritising public ownership. It’s an odd and rotten state of affairs. 

If some of these city-region problems are particular to Aberdeen, then the social crisis of library closure is a very British story. More than 780 have closed across the UK since 2010. Efforts to achieve library-rebound after long spells of pandemic lockdown have been made harder by reduced opening hours combined, paradoxically, with a reliance on footfall figures and book-borrowing data as key performance indicators. Experimental models for revolutionising library service delivery draw on a now pervasive culture of the micro-venture and pop-up initiative. The most streamlined designs are increasingly librarian-free, drive-by, and self-serve – the sort of glorified vending machines that you’d expect to dole out shrink-wrapped copies of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. An alternative direction of travel is towards third sector alt-libraries, re-purposing council-run premises through community asset transfer, and staffed by volunteers. It’s not clear how librarianship, shorn of professionalism and without the support of the state, can deal with the complexities of stock renewal and catalogue system upgrades, or cope with rising utilities costs. 

According to figures supplied by SLIC (the Scottish Library and Information Council) the recent loss of 30% of Aberdeen’s branch provision leaves the city with a low ranking for levels of libraries per head of population, sitting well below the national average. The Save Aberdeen Libraries campaign is now on a war-footing, preparing a legal petition to be delivered at the Court of Session in Edinburgh which seeks to reverse the closure decisions enforced by the City Council. Lawfare representation by a solicitor advocate is planned. The case seems strong since the integrated impact assessment which must be undertaken by law appears to have been completed some days after the Council’s announcement of Woodside Library’s closure, while contriving to go light-touch on what had already been reduced to a box-ticking exercise. These actions, only revealed following a Freedom of Information request, were potentially unlawful and by future court judgement may yet be confirmed as such. It is telling that such measures are now necessary to assert how public services are an investment in the life of a neighbourhood, and never a burden.  


Comments (6)

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  1. Antoine Bisset says:

    Spot on! What kind of excuse for civilisation closes libraries?
    The library was the classroom of the lad o’ pairts, the boy who was self taught and who went forth to change the world. David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, Andrew Carnegie. The library was the essential requirement for the self-taught. It still is. Not least because printed books cannot be overwritten as now can happen with anything online, including Wikipedia.

  2. Carole Ross says:

    I don’t know how the author of this piece feels, but the picture accompanying it is pretty upsetting to anyone brought up with the grey granite of Aberdeen (see line 3). My first library book in nineteen oatcake came from Ferryhill Library, included in the same round of closures as Woodside. These stone buildings were substantial, iconic parts of our built environment. To illustrate the writing with an anonymous red brick structure does not do justice to the vandalism of the Council – it’s like heaping obliteration on top of the closure.

    The description of the Special Meeting is sadly believable of a Council which has excelled for more than 40 years in garnering all the downsides of an oil boom on the town while failing to extract any benefit. I wish the ‘Save Aberdeen Libraries’ campaign every success.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    My local library was able to help me on the odd occasion I wanted information on some relatively niche aspect of local history. If not them, then who?

  4. Carole Ross says:

    Thanks for the picture change!

  5. Fay Kennedy says:

    Barbarism taking over. What a terrible state of affairs in a country that supposedly had a reputation of being the standard for education. It’s getting harder each day to have a sense of pride in my heritage. Libraries have been a source of pleasure and learning since I learned to read and am now in my 70’s and use them regularly. Very sad.

  6. Fit Like? says:

    I used Aberdeen Central Library regularly over the last couple of years. Sadly, I don’t think there were ever more punters than librarians in it (that’s 3). Also, they had put much of their stock in a warehouse (presumably to improve the view of the carpet). Use it or lose it. As far as I could make out, most Aberdonians would prefer carparks. The very small number of cyclists tend to use the pavement – there are almost no pedestrians or cycling infrastructure. They have a Council that spent £40,000,000 turning Union Terrace Gardens into Union Terrace Gardens with a small cafe, and it looks like they are paying for that by closing swimming pools and libraries.

    Weird place, Aberdeen.

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