Doctor Who and libraries

Since the CILIPS screening of the Hollywood Librarian, we’ve been somewhat preoccupied with the portrayal of libraries and librarians in TV and film. The most recent two-part instalment of Doctor Who, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead (Series 4, Episodes 8 and 9), were therefore an absolute treat.

The Doctor and current assistant Donna Noble respond to a call for help and end up on a 51st Century planet known as The Library which, despite being planet-sized, is recognisably such and replete with books. In fact, the Doctor reassures us that the durable format that is the book is still going strong in 20 centuries time, seeing off competition from holovids, direct brain downloads and fiction mists! And, at the centre of the planet, maintaining order is the index computer, the highly evolved library management system!

However, The Library is devoid of patrons. Any concerns that this was a reference to the declining use of libraries or, worse, a representation of the death of libraries, are quickly dispelled as the Doctor sets about solving the mystery.

Along the way there are many references to the power of libraries and books, from feeding the imagination of the little girl at the centre of the mystery to preserving culture and history via physical records. In fact, this latter function is realised literally when the dependable library triumphs in “saving” (in binary form) the planet’s inhabitants from cannibalistic parasites. (Never mind that the parasite’s presence there was a result of their natural habitat being cut down to make the books!)

There have also been minor ripples of excitement for librarian types in previous episodes. In The Doctor’s Daughter (Series 4, Episode 6) Donna harnesses her knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System, which she claims to have mastered in “two days flat” while working as a library assistant in Hounslow Library, to crack a numerical code and end a war. One wonders, however, if she could really have been referring to all four volumes (3,983 pages) of Edition 22 of the Dewey Decimal Classification and Relative Index published by OCLC!

In the following episode (The Unicorn and the Wasp, Series 4, Episode 7), the Doctor reveals the future of digital publishing, telling Donna that Agatha Christie’s books are still read in future millennia. Previous literary appearances have included Charles Dickens (with ghosts, at Christmas of course) and William Shakespeare (stalked by three ugly crones).

Although libraries, literature and books are well represented, the same cannot be said for cataloguers. The Judoon, the rhinoceros-headed villains of Smith and Jones (Series 3, Episode 1), fancied themselves as a Galactic police force but were mainly occupied with the business of cataloguing people, roaming the galaxy with their methodical mantra and scanners at the ready for, ultimately, nefarious purposes!