To lighten the mood a little, I’ve been thinking of doing a regular feature on the presentation of libraries on screen: films, TV, video games, the lot. I know a lot of us are big on the geekier fandoms (hands up if you’ve ever demanded that your partner starts calling you ‘khaleesi’), so I figured this would be a chance to nerd out and discuss the things that really matter. And by the things that really matter, I’m talking about the people who live in your telly.
Doctor Who (1963 – present)
Look at those dates! While Doctor Who hasn’t been on the air consistently during this period – the most notable hiatus being the Dark Times of the 1990s – it has always survived in some form, and because I like messing with canon I’m also going to be considering stories from comics, audios, and novels.
The First Doctor was a regular resident of Shoreditch and was presumably a library-goer back before the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 – we later see his tattered library card in 2010′s ‘Vampires of Venice’, though the fact that this is being kept by the Eleventh Doctor suggests that he’s either a shocking hoarder or hasn’t actually bothered to join any of the many libraries he would subsequently visit. Boo! It is interesting, though, that his screen debut pretty much lines up with the 1964 act, perhaps suggesting that his story is also the story of modern librarianship in Britain (hint: not quite).
The Second Doctor travelled with Zoe Heriot up until his forced regeneration (sad face) at the hands of the Time Lords in ‘The War Games’. We meet Zoe aboard ‘the Wheel’, a space station in the 21st century, where she works as some sort of astrophysicist librarian. Amazing! Zoe’s more of a mathematician than she is a librarian, but her skill set predicts the later exploits of real-world librarians – she’s a dab hand with computers and technology. So much so that an audio adventure set after her time with the Doctor had her being selected as a Cyberplanner for the Cybermen. Oh dear! What we can apparently learn from Zoe about librarianship is that it’s suited to those of us who are extremely logical and would make great robo-managers. (Don’t worry, she once again used computer smarts to defeat the Cybermen)
Zoe’s not the only cyber-librarian in the Whoniverse, either – the Bernice Summerfield spin-off adventures visit the Braxiatel Collection which, after suffering a Dalek invasion, decides to protect itself by secretly recruiting an army of Cybermen and cyber-converting some of its staff. I feel like we might be getting the short end of the cyber-stick here…
Jumping ahead a little, The Fifth Doctor featured in a framing story in the comics called ‘Catalogue of Events’, which featured multiple nested stories as the Doctor meets The Librarian at the Events Library. This is a pretty nefarious presentation of librarians, with the Doctor disapproving of one organisation having the sort of control over the universe that those at the Events Library do – they store events, which are then curated into sequence in order to bring about a desired outcome. This is an interesting one because it brings into question the powers that librarians have, the realities we create through our collection development policies and whether it’s right for us to censor through omission. It’s also interesting because it’s revealed that the Events Library is under the control of big boy Time Lord Rassilon, which is of course a very thought-provoking comment on who the real stakeholders in libraries are, I’m sure (I’m not).
It’s not the only time libraries have been harbingers of doom, however!
The Seventh Doctor had an entire adventure with librarians in the cheerily-titled audio ‘The Genocide Machine’. Traveling with Ace, the Doctor ends up on a rainforest planet which is also home to the very secret Kar-Charrat library, a wonder of the universe because it contains every piece of information from anywhere ever. Hmm! Afraid of the information getting into the wrong hands, the librarians use a temporal defence mechanism that means that only a few ‘time sensitive’ species are even aware of its continued existence. “This isn’t what libraries are about!” you might be shouting at the screen right now. Kar-Charrat doesn’t sound very Open Access friendly. It’s for good reason though, as the Daleks soon attack the facility, presumably because they’re annoyed by the overdue fine they got for taking so long to finish reading A Game of Thrones. Things don’t go so well, because although the Daleks are defeated, the Doctor does blow up the wetworks containing all of the library’s data. Oops.
‘The Genocide Machine’ is also notable because it features a cataloguer, Prink (played by voice of the Daleks, Nicholas Briggs!). Prink, being a cataloguer, has not got time for games and in a crowning moment of brilliance completely loses it and shoots an evil Ace duplicate in the chest. Unfortunately, the Ace duplicate then breaks his neck. Swings and roundabouts.
The Eighth Doctor is mostly only remembered for the questionable TV movie that broke up the 1990s hiatus, but he actually has a substantial set of (actually quite good) adventures in novels and audios which are currently ongoing. As with the Second Doctor, he recruits a librarian as one of his companions – Samson Griffin. Samson, like Zoe, ends up under the control of evil forces, though this time it’s Davros. Lesson learned: librarians are intelligent but their brains tend to be the jugular the baddies go for. Donna Noble is a library worker too (she spent 6 months at Hounslow Library and apparently mastered DDC in a couple of days like a boss) and she ends up getting her head stuffed full of a human/Time Lord metacrisis, the result of which is that she’s mind-wiped to avoid explodey head death. There’s a notable run here, then, of librarians not simply as those charged with storing and managing information, but as the vessels of that information themselves: human hard drives who can be wiped clean if the occasion calls for it (Zoe is mind-wiped upon leaving the Doctor and Rassilon tells the Events Librarian to erase his memories of the Doctor).
Looking further into New Who, we’ve got the obvious ‘Silence in the Library’ story which has the Doctor running around a library planet overrun by Vashta Nerada, shadows that eat people. This is obviously a massive preservation and customer service issue, and highlights the need to be environmentally conscious when selecting a supplier (pro-tip: don’t use paper from a forest full of man-eating micro-organisms). It’s also intriguing for its storage technology – much of what’s on the library planet is paper (!), but there’s also a rather sinister electronic database of people that actually contains those people. As in, they’re living in an alternate universe contained entirely in the library’s systems. Crikey. That’s not the first time the show’s messed about with the indexing and retrieval of life, time, and reality itself either – the Fourth Doctor adventure ‘Nightmare of Eden’ has drug-smuggling science guys storing habitats in projection crystals, which unfortunately act as a way for the local fauna to get out on a space liner and run riot. I’ve dealt with some pretty troublesome formats in my time but I’ve yet to be mauled by a Mandrel while browsing the collections.
So what can we learn about librarians from Doctor Who?
Well, for one thing they’re rarely quiet. Doctor Who‘s history of libraries in turmoil reflects the very real history of libricide as a warfare tactic. Stories like ‘The Genocide Machine’ sagely note that the act of collating information provides great power and that being well-informed is tantamount to kitting yourself out with heavy Dalek artillery. As for the library workers themselves, they tend to be quite smug and controlling, but they represent a fairly balanced spectrum of do-gooders and baddies. The only other thing they all seem to have in common is that they could do with getting out more, a trait shown in both Zoe and Donna’s arcs as they gain greater emotional maturity and understanding. It’s an unfair assumption to say librarians are know-it-alls with the emotional intelligence of a Cyberman, but there is something in the idea that we benefit from better understanding our users.
Science fiction like Doctor Who can occupy a very odd space with regards to libraries in that it both predicts future trends (the rise of computing and information science) while fetishising a sort of retro futurism (library planets full of futuristic technology but still bursting at the seams with antiquarian books and wooden furnishings). ‘Silence in the Library’ is great because – perhaps unwittingly – it takes a very tongue in cheek approach to this fetishisation of grand libraries, with the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver a victim of compatibility issues (“it doesn’t work on wood!”) and the use of paper questioned on an ethical level (albeit one we might not consider in a world without Vashta Nerada). But it still speaks of the typical perception of libraries as being anchored in a very traditional space, and this combination of hi-tech and antique to appeal to both wonder and nostalgia is one that librarians might wish to emulate in order to bridge some of the widening divides in user expectations.
All in all, there’s something very sweet about Doctor Who‘s reverence of libraries in spite of the fact that it frequently uses them to scare small children, and perhaps we’ve got a few lessons to learn from it. Lessons like “don’t forget the world outside your silo”, “don’t trust Rassilon because he’s secretly Timothy Dalton”, and “don’t outsource your security to Cybus Industries.”