Hands down, The Library at Night is one of the coolest exhibitions I've been to lately, maybe ever. It explores ten great libraries of the world using virtual reality. It's more than an exhibition: the virtual reality makes it a personal experience. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
A "Virtual Exploration"
In a nutshell, The Library at Night (La bibliothèque, la nuit) is a "virtual exploration" of ten of the world’s great libraries. Designed by Ex Machina and its artistic director, Robert Lepage, and based on an original idea by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), the project was inspired by an essay by Alberto Manguel, the project's co-creator. It aims to explore the "philosophical, architectural and social foundations on which all libraries rest".
I knew all of this going in, but I was not prepared for what awaited me.
After navigating to the exhibition area of the BAnQ, I waited outside a plain door with the other visitors (tickets must be booked ahead online). At the appointed time, the door opened and we were ushered into an imaginary library, a recreation of Manguel's own library. Dusty volumes lined the shelves, and rain drizzled down windows scattered throughout the room.
In this beautiful, atmospheric space, an unseen voice spoke to us about the power of libraries. Parts of the room would be lit up or darkened to focus on various objects, and we physically followed the narration through the room.
The lights went back up. A guide appeared and instructed us to uncover Samsung Gear VR headsets with 360° video immersion technology hidden in benches. He instructed us on how to put them on and how use them. Next, he pushed on one of the bookshelves, which pivoted to reveal a secret passageway.
Headsets in hand, we went to the next room. It was dark. We were in a forest of birch trees made out of books, scattered with wooden desks topped with green library lamps. I found a place at a swivel chair, put on my headset, and began.
There are ten virtual library experiences to go between, at your own pace and in your own order. I expected a virtual visit of the ten libraries, like a 360° version of Google Street View. It started off like that for me in the Library of Parliament of Ottawa, as a woman opened a large illustrated volume of Audubon birds. But then the birds flew out of the book and into the dome of the library.
I don't want to give any more spoilers about the other library visits, because it is a pleasure and a delight to discover each one. I was in awe in the Admont Abbey Library, I relaxed in the Hasedera Temple's library, I laughed in the undersea library of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, and I literally wept in the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The beautiful visuals and the poignant texts truly moved me.
Real and Imaginary
It was a shock to take off my headset at the end of the visit; I had been so absorbed in the worlds created on the screen in front of me. These experiences felt strangely personal, like they had been my own discoveries.
This exhibition converted me to an enthusiastic believer in the potential of virtual reality. It has the power to take people to new places, both real and imaginary. As an educational tool or as an artwork in its own right, virtual reality is carving out a place in museums, and rightly so.
The Library at Night at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (until August 28, 2016), must be 14 years or older
Address: 475 Boul de Maisonneuve E, Montréal ∣ Métro: Station Berri-UQAM (Green and Orange Lines) ∣ Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from noon to 8:30pm, must get tickets ahead of time here (free on Tuesdays after 5pm)