April 22, 2018

A Planet Of Books And Other Librarian Dreams: An Interview With Whovian Librarian Susan Jane Bigelow

Librarian and sci-fi author and enthusiast Susan Jane Bigelow ruminates on how the much-loved and storied TV show—which celebrated its 50th anniversary this week—has influenced her life and her approach to librarianship. (Bigelow also enlarges on this theme in her essay in Queers Dig Timelords: A Celebration of Dr. Who by the LBGTQ Fans Who Love It, which also features a piece by fellow librarian Neil Chester.) She also settles once and for all the lasting question of which Doctor would make the best librarian.

LJ: How did Dr. Who, your experience as a transgender woman, and librarianship intersect?

Susan Jane Bigelow: There’s this story that goes around about how someone who was transitioning was trying to explain the whole thing to a nerdy friend, and their friend just wasn’t getting it. No matter what they said, nothing was getting through. Finally she said, “It’s like I’m the Doctor, and I’m regenerating into a girl.” The friend got it then. I know a lot of people can’t relate to that, their experiences of transition are wildly different, but there’s a sort of constant and fundamental change underlying the show that I strongly identify with.

A lot of librarians are Doctor Who fans, which sort of makes sense. We’re always zipping around learning new things, grabbing bits and pieces of information from everywhere all the time.

When I was trying to figure myself out I did a lot of searching; I used all those library skills to find out as much as I could. It didn’t solve anything, that was up to me, but it gave me somewhere to start.

I also think I’m lucky to be in the library world, which tends to be very open and accepting.

As a librarian, what did you think of the library episode?

I felt a few ways about it. First, the idea of a planet-sized library is fantastic! But… a planet-sized library filled with killer aliens, that’s less nice. I hated the idea of a giant library that was closed!

I also wondered why in the world the Ultimate Library of the Future would be nothing but books. Doesn’t that seem a little odd?

How has Dr. Who continued to inform or influence your practice of librarianship?

One of the things I love about the series is that it places such value on being creative, clever, and using whatever tools you have at your disposal to solve problems. If that isn’t librarianship, I don’t know what is.

Also, the whole ethos of constant change and keeping yourself open to new things and new experiences. That’s certainly what my library career’s been like.

What if anything about the show makes your inner librarian cringe?

The Doctor is basically a walking encyclopedia of the universe, plus he’s the last of his incredibly ancient race, but he never writes any of his vast knowledge down. Plus the filing system on the TARDIS is rubbish, how does he ever find anything he needs?

Also, in the Doctor’s own library on the TARDIS, the Encyclopaedia Gallifreya is in the form of bottles filled with a purple liquid. That seems like a single-use encyclopedia! Clara spills one of the volumes, and there’s no hint of whether they regenerate.

What reactions do you get from patrons or colleagues to your Whovian fandom?

A few watch the show, and we’ll talk about it, but others just give me that blank stare when I ask if they’re fans.

Which Doctor or Companion do you think would make the best librarian?

I think the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee from 1970-74. He was so methodical and calm, and he seemed a bit more organized than many of his other incarnations. Plus he had that great car—isn’t that a fantastic car for a librarian to have?

River Song would probably make a great archivist, too.

If you could have any Dr. Who prop or power for use in the library, what would it be and how would you use it?

Beyond using a sonic screwdriver on the HVAC system, it would be wonderful to have a library that was bigger on the inside. Think of how many more computers, books, and study spaces we could fit in!

What didn’t I ask you about Dr. Who and librarianship that you’d like to talk about?

I think any show that inspires that sense of wonder in people, that makes us want to get out there and learn more about the world, is a great thing. I believe libraries do that, too. It’s not a coincidence that people have built small libraries that look just like the TARDIS, after all.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.



  1. It’s Doctor Who, not Dr. Who.