When I first read about the Alberto Manguel/ Robert Lepage collaboration “La bibliotheque, la nuit” at Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec, in Montreal, Canada, it sounded nuts. A virtual reality exhibition of the interiors of libraries? Even for someone deeply involved with books, this sounded like a real bore. And it seemed desperate, libraries trying to reinvent themselves as entertainment? But I was curious enough to check it out.
Once I experienced the exhibition, I was floored. Ten libraries from around the world were virtually presented, with a short 2-3 minute narrative describing them. Paper-based books formed the background to many of the scenes and there was a constant subtext alluding to their importance. Overall, it was an oddly reflective and poetic. When experiencing a library, you were generally located in the center of a reading room, and could look in every direction. The Oculus Rift VR simulators were very impressive. The experience felt so real it was disconcerting to look down and not see my own body in the virtual space.
If one of the goals of this exhibition was to establish libraries as a third space, I left doubtful. But I can imagine some kind of “stack view” using virtual reality to help visually find books of interest on the shelves, which would be incredibly useful to those of us researching bindings (except for all the books in boxes…). Or, much like books are now digitized, will libraries themselves be “preserved” using virtual reality in the future, and this will be how we remember and experience this once culturally powerful dinosaur?