Silence in the Libraries: Preparing a Doctor Who manuscript in lockdown

Image Credit: David Iliff (CC BY-SA 3.0Wikimedia Commons)

Image Description: The interior of Duke Humphrey’s Library in the Bodleian

By Katrin Thier

29 February 2020 was a normal day – kind of. The BFI on South Bank was showing the new animated version of The Faceless Ones. True, there was a new virus going round, but after some consideration, it seemed all right to go on a day trip to a major population centre to watch the show with like-minded people. There was some evidence of extra caution for the signings – no selfies with the guests, or even shaking hands – but no-one batted an eyelid at gathering in a large auditorium. 

I went to take a break from writing the Black Archive on The Stones of Blood. For well over a year, my evenings and weekends had been taken up (and increasingly taken over) by research and writing, and I was about to embark on the home straight – the manuscript was due at the end of March. I tend to write long stretches of text without interruption, or the distraction of detailed references (which might end up being omitted in later edits anyway), so by the end of February, I had about 38,000 words of text peppered with sketchy footnotes. These needed to be checked and put into a consistent style, both to correct any details I may have misremembered, and to make sure the source of my information could easily be found by anyone curious enough to try. And there was a lot to be checked: David Fisher’s script for the serial is brimming with allusions, leading the Black Archive down all sorts of diverse, and often unrelated, rabbit holes, including megalithic archaeology, Celtic mythology, 1970s esotericism, hyperspace geometry, and modernist literature – to name but a few. And while I had, during more than a year of research, managed to fill much of a chubby little River Song-style diary with research notes (not to mention a sizable SD-card with odd passages photographed in various libraries), there is always something left to look up. For example, I may have taken notes from some article early on, selecting information which looked relevant at the time. but inevitably, in the spirit of a certain law, it would turn out months later that another passage from the same article was more important – in an entirely different context. I would (hopefully…) remember where I read this – but I would need to see the text again to find out which page to cite. This is the same for any publication, even if this one is longer than most. It is not really a massive task, just a case of sitting down in the library with a pile of books stacked up next to a computer. I have a day job, but some of the local libraries open quite late – a month should do it, no problem. 

Fast-forward two weeks, and the virus has established itself, the WHO has declared a pandemic, and various countries have started to close their borders and lock down their populations. With lower case numbers than the European continent, the British government has so far been clinging to business as usual. I am in the middle of working through a sizeable pile of books and magazines in the reading room of one of the university libraries (open till 10 pm!), as well as a much smaller pile which I have on loan from another. 

On March 16, everything changes. At 6pm, the Prime Minister announces that, contrary to earlier assertions, it is now recommended to cease all public activities as soon as possible, with the country  heading for lockdown from the following week. I’m sitting in the library at the time, knee-deep in stone circles, Celtic goddesses and UFOs, and I fail to read the news until the next morning. Around lunchtime that day, the university announces that its libraries will be closed to readers from 5pm – well before I will leave the office. Luckily, the public library remains open for another few days, and I manage to grab a few more books there. And then, the fun begins.

It’s not like I haven’t got any books. I still have those few loans from the university, and more than a few from the public library, which are all now snuggling up to my own collection in a couple of fairly impressive, if slightly unstable, piles in the living room. But really, these only account for a rather small fraction of my bibliography, and some of them end up being cited rather more than planned – just because they are there – while I am aware of better sources which are tantalizingly out of reach. Fortunately, we live in a digital world, and I have some experience in tracking down material online. Google Books and the Internet Archive are a good source for older texts which are out of copyright, and I am quoting a fair number of eighteenth- century publications – not least because Fisher appears to have been familiar with some of this material, and even name-checks some of the authors. Various library memberships, locally and otherwise, also give me access to further databases, including some copyrighted material such as articles in academic journals. For checking references, this sort of electronic access can sometimes be better than paper, with string searches promising instant results. On the other hand, leafing through pages on screen, when they can’t be searched for one reason or another, can quickly become tedious, and has me yearning for a hard copy on more than a few occasions. 

And of course, not everything is online – far from it. Much in-copyright material is hard to come by, especially magazines and fiction. The libraries I can access own a few titles between them as e-books, so I end up emailing a friend to check page numbers in a number of editions of classic texts from his private collection. Similarly, minor 1980s archaeological reports are too old to have been published as e-books, but are not on anybody’s priority list to digitize. In the end,  someone I happen to know at the Rollright Trust (which looks after the stones where the serial was filmed)agrees to look up some details for me. Those internet services that do cover copyrighted material – such as Google Books and Amazon’s ‘look inside’ functionality – only show small parts of such books, and it sometimes takes guess-work and cross-referencing of several searches to identify the passage in question. 

For example, I want to cite from the first edition of TH White’s The Once and Future King, or at least an edition that would have been available to Fisher in 1978, rather than the recent paperback I have been using. I know the volume and chapter number, so checking it out in a book would be a matter of minutes. Tracking it down on Google Books takes considerably longer, and I need to come up with, and try, several different search terms to locate the right line (and hence, the page number) among the tiny ‘snippets’ provided by Google Books. As it turns out, an initial string search failed because the sentence was phrased slightly differently in the first edition – the search engine insists that the distinction between a ‘cave’ and a ‘cavern’ makes all the difference in the world.

Similarly, a database of academic papers is all very well, but it does not contain the fringe archaeology magazine 3rd Stone, which is sitting in a box in the reading room – firmly out of reach. It contains one of those items that I read a while ago as background and now think may be more immediately useful – I seem to remember it was quite a good summary, if a bit vague – but I don’t think I remember it well enough to cite it without checking. However, as a small non-academic publication which is still in copyright, it doesn’t really fall into any of the categories for material that quickly finds its way onto the internet. In the end, that article goes unmentioned. It’s called ‘Stonehenge before the Hippies’, if anyone wants to have a look…

All this slows me down, and at the end of March, I end up submitting a manuscript that is spattered with bright yellow highlights all over the footnotes and bibliography, marking up the bits and pieces of information that are still incomplete. It’s not really a problem. After all, there are still several months of editing ahead of us, giving me time to pursue these loose ends at the same time – and surely, I’ll be able to get back into a library before then. For the moment, the university libraries have renewed my loans until June, and the public library is auto-renewing theirs a few weeks at a time. Everyone seems to think that an end is in sight. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. 

As a glorious spring takes the edge off the oddness of the world, I sit on the balcony trying to eliminate those yellow highlights while elsewhere my editor reviews the manuscript. It comes back with a number of ideas and suggestions, and asks for a few more references. Mostly, these are things I know where to find, a matter of minutes to look up in the book… which I don’t have. The excitement of editing and improving the manuscript gets mixed up with the frustration of taking more and more time to hunt down a simple page number, as all the easy ones have by now been fixed. As the lockdown keeps getting extended, any hopes of seeing my reading room books again begin to dwindle. On the upside, digital versions of books start appearing on library catalogues that had not been there before, as academic publishers make their output available if only for a limited period. It’s a welcome development, but still does not cover some of the more obscure media I am missing. Concessions need to be made. I allow myself to cite recent editions of older text, give up on some page numbers (the chapter number will have to do!) and start rifling the books on my living room piles for information I had intended to take from other places. I just have to swallow my academic pride now – it’s not like I am actually changing information, and odds are, no-one but me will even notice (how many instances can you spot?).

Come July, and staff are beginning to return to university libraries, and start offering remote scanning services. Unfortunately, it’s too late to take advantage – by now the manuscript is more or less on the final draft. Instead, I finally find the time to read the whole manuscript myself – for the first time from cover to cover (as it were) – and as a result, I annoy the editor by trying to sneak some last-minute changes into the text. In late July, the file gets passed to the publisher with a bit over a month to spare. In August, the reading rooms reopen.

Copies of The Stones of Blood Black Archive can be purchased from Obverse Books through this link


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