The changing reputation of the library in fiction: from Doctor Faustus to Doctor Who, via murder mysteries and eighteenth-century England

This post contains potential spoilers for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and for the  Doctor Who TV episodes “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” and “Extremis”.

When I think of libraries, I think of quiet rooms, many shelves, slow paces, fingers on book spines.  I think of community hubs with public internet access and children’s reading events.  I think of ancient collections, dusty scrolls, researchers in white gloves handling illuminated manuscripts.  I think of stressed students, typing late into the night, lidded coffee cups beside them.  The librarian stereotype I call to mind is quiet, wears glasses and unfashionable dowdy clothing, and is at times stern.  She cares more for books than people.  These various ideas of libraries are different – but in general they suggest that libraries are both respectable and respected.  In this post I’d like to suggest some ways in which that hasn’t always been the case.

Libraries are generally places which make knowledge accessible, but the dissemination of knowledge hasn’t always been seen as a good thing.  In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (c.1590), Faustus turns to away from God and to books – books which contain scientific knowledge, and in some instances, matters of witchcraft.  Although Marlowe’s atheism is well-known, he lived in a Christian culture where belief in the supernatural was widespread, so the potential for books to influence one’s spirituality would have been a genuine concern for many people. Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose (1980; translated by William Weaver in 1983), is set in 1327, and illustrates the extremity of the threat some religious figures felt was posed by certain books of knowledge: to one monk, a book rumoured to contain the missing “Comedy” section from Aristotle’s Poetics becomes both motive and means for murder; whoever reads the book becomes a target.

We see a link between danger, wizardry, and books in the library from Harry Potter, and the library at the Unseen University from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series; in both cases, some books pose a physical threat and have to be chained to their shelves.  Sometimes, this fear is connected to the printed word: in The Truth (2000), Pratchett alludes to the superstitions accompanying moveable type, where some believed that the type could retain qualities from what had previously been printed when it came to rearrange the letters and print the next book.  Neither Discworld nor Harry Potter explicitly incorporate a religious element to the danger these books of knowledge pose – but the way the authors write about the threat may take unacknowledged cues from this historical concern.  Furthermore, while the suspicions they raise are more about books in general and less about the specific book-related spaces of the library, they align with fears around the collection and distribution of knowledge, two potential purposes of libraries.

In eighteenth century England, educated young women were seen as particularly at risk of being led astray by the printed word.  Public lending libraries (known as circulating libraries) had quite a different reputation from any of the libraries we know today.  Rather than being places of education and study, they were seen by some as scandalous.  The reason?  Firstly, the freedom it gave readers to choose their own books, and secondly, the association between circulating libraries and novels.  Novels were relatively new, a genre initially written mostly by women, and these factors contributed to public mistrust of the form.  Furthermore, it was feared that they encouraged romantic notions, and could result in girls running off from home with unsuitable men.  In his play The Rivals (1775), Richard Brinsley Sheridan satirises this fear of the library: the wealthy old aristocrat Sir Anthony calls them “an ever-green tree, of diabolical knowledge” (1.2.205-206), using hyperbolic biblical imagery to suggest they will lead to readers’ downfalls.  Meanwhile, young Lydia Languish has her servant fetch library books in secret, and hides them out of sight of her respectable aunt: the books are treated as contraband.

Broadly speaking, it’s no longer a library’s books that are feared, but what else may be lurking within the space: the possibility of “Professor Plum in the library with the lead piping”.  Even in The Name of the Rose, while it initially appears that just reading the book is deadly, it later becomes clear that the deaths are the work of a person.  As Agatha Christie noted in the foreword to The Body in the Library (1942), a dead body found in the library is a trope of detective fiction.  (Today, crime fiction make up a fair proportion of the books in many public libraries, so it’s an interesting relationship – check out this 2015 article, “‘There’s a dead body in my library’: crime fiction texts and the history of libraries”, by Rachel Franks, for more on this).  The potential advantages of a library setting for a crime scene are emphasised in film and TV.  Shelves break up sightlines, creating places to hide and even visually replicating a maze.

In the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library” (2008), these aspects, along with the library’s apparent emptiness, create a sense a sense of threat.  One of many libraries to appear in Doctor Who, this library is home to the terrifying Vashta Nerada, who inhabit the plentiful shadows.  In the concluding part of the story, “Forest of the Dead”, we learn that the planet was once covered by forests, and these forests were home to the Vashta Nerada.  When the library was built, the trees were pulped to become books, but the spores of the Vashta Nerada clung to the pages.  The material form of these books makes them dangerous – in contrast to the dangerous content of earlier books.  Likewise, whereas circulating libraries were seen as a moral threat, writer Steven Moffat attaches the threat to the physical aspects of the library: its darkness, and its location on the planet of the Vashta Nerada.  The physical body is endangered, with visitors to the library at risk of being left skeletons.

This is just one of the many, many libraries in Doctor Who, across the classic series, 2005 reboot, and among the stories in various other media – including one within the Tardis.  A quick search of the Tardis Doctor Who wiki was enough to conclude that several thousand words just on the libraries of Doctor Who would have been more than feasible.  In 2017, another Steven Moffat episode, “Extremis”, took inspiration from The Name of the Rose, and saw a blind Doctor visit the Vatican library.  Unlike in the 2008 story, the focus was on the ideas within a particular book, the Veritas.  While the Monks encourage the belief that the text is dangerous, the Veritas lives up to its name as an enlightening truth.  Reading the book was never truly dangerous.  The two attitudes found in the opening to Doctor Faustus recur here, but the “right” side has switched; the character who opens the books in search of knowledge is a hero proper, not a tragic protagonist.


In the process of researching this, I came upon another blog, with a series of posts about fictional libraries.  (Searching “guide to fictional libraries” got me the list of posts).

Oxford University Press has a brief list of librarians from fantasy fiction, including, of course, Pratchett’s own.  If you’re looking for something broader, more extensive, (and potentially less highbrow), there is of course a Wikipedia article on librarians in popular culture.

And one last thing: “Silence in the Library” was preceded by “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, in which Agatha Christie featured as a character.

Do you have a favourite fictional library? Share your thoughts on anything I’ve mentioned in the comments below!

Links correct as of 24th April 2020. Minor edits made 24th April 2020.

3 thoughts on “The changing reputation of the library in fiction: from Doctor Faustus to Doctor Who, via murder mysteries and eighteenth-century England”

  1. I love this post and the range of texts you covered so much – thank you for such a thoughtful, fascinating overview! I had no idea about libraries being a common site for crimes in detective fiction, and your analysis of the library in Doctor Who was particularly great. I have a similar association with libraries as you described in the beginning of your post, so it’s really interesting to see how libraries become such a fraught site of competing ideologies.

    This is definitely something I’ll be thinking about when I come across fictional libraries in the future 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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