Montreal

Robert Lepage virtual-reality show fetes 10th birthday of the Grande Bibliothèque

Multidisciplinary artist Robert Lepage has created what he calls the most sophisticated virtual reality experience in the world for The Library at Night, a new exhibition to mark the 10th anniversary of Montreal's Grande Bibliothèque.

Inspired by author Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, Lepage uses Oculus Rift for immersive adventure

Roberto Lepage (left) was inspired by The Library at Night, a book by Alberto Manguel (right) to create the exhibition that marks the 10th anniversary of Montreal's Grande Bibliothèque. (CBC)

In what Robert Lepage calls the most ambitious use of Oculus Rift virtual-reality technology to date, a new exhibition celebrating the 10th anniversary of Montreal's Grande Bibliothèque takes visitors on a tour of ten of the world's most interesting libraries.

Inspired by writer Alberto Manguel's book, The Library at Night, Lepage worked with the theme of the night to create virtual visits of libraries.
CBC's Jeanette Kelly tries out Oculus Rift gear to visit the Alexandrina Library. (CBC)

Visitors to the exhibition, which opened Oct. 27, first walk through a reconstruction of Manguel's personal library before entering a darkened room that feels like a gloomy forest of birch trees and fallen leaves – book leaves, that is.

Library tables are set up, and seated at those tables, visitors put on an Oculus Rift headset.

Papyrus rolls in flames

Looking in the headset into the starry sky, they are taken on a virtual visit to any of Lepage's ten creations.

The original Bibliotheca Alexandrina may have burned down millenia ago, but in Lepage's immersive world, the visitor sees clerks shelving papyrus rolls – and then experiences the flames licking at their feet.

The other libraries include:

Among them, as well, is the Nautilus library  an imaginary library from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.  

Books as 'ghostly presences'

Manguel was present for the inauguration of Lepage's exhibition. He explained his fascination with the idea of libraries at night.

"Books become ghostly presences, and I am in an atmosphere of reflection and fantasy that is very different than that of the day," Manguel said.

For Lepage, the appeal of working with the theme of night is the opportunity to conjure up the ghosts of history.

At the Copenhagen Library, which Lepage called "a dead library," the books are on the shelves but can't be borrowed.

"They're there for the acoustics and for the ambiance," Lepage said, explaining that people can sit with their laptops and read the works without touching the actual books. 

In his virtual visit, Lepage takes visitors back to the 19th century.

"You see some ghosts actually in the library on the second level who still climb ladders and take books out of shelves and consult them in the good old-fashioned way," Lepage said.

Lepage looks to future

Since its opening a decade ago, Montreal's Grande Bibliothèque has had 27 million visits, making it the most visited library in the French-speaking world. 

But will it be a ghost library a few decades from now?

Lepage said with newspapers disappearing, many people believe books, too, will become rareties.

"We think, oh, libraries will just go away," he said. "It's certainly interesting at this anniversary to reflect on what is the future of libraries."

Lepage said libraries are becoming gathering places and communal playgrounds.

He said working on this exhibition led him to "reflect on the possibilities – and how the word 'library' is a very wide, open word."
Visitors to Lepage's exhibition The Library at Night enter a darkened room filled with birch trees, the floor strewn with pages torn from books. (CBC)

The Library at Night runs until August 2016.

Because of the use of the Oculus Rift gear, the experience is limited to 40 people per hour.  

To get the most out of the experience, visitors are required to reserve a visit online at banq.qc.ca

About the Author

Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.

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