Lose yourself — virtually — among hundreds of good books: Immersive ‘The Library At Night’ finally comes to Toronto

An acclaimed immersive installation that takes viewers on a round-the-world tour of famous libraries is coming to Toronto. “The Library at Night” is a collaboration between the acclaimed Québécois theatre director Robert Lepage and Argentina-born writer and bibliophile Alberto Manguel, and is being presented by Lighthouse Immersive, the company behind the popular Immersive Van Gogh and other virtual exhibitions, in association with Luminato Festival Toronto.

Inspired by Manguel’s 2006 book of the same name, “The Library at Night” uses 360-degree video immersion technology and VR headsets to bring viewers inside ten famous libraries, some real, some historical, and others fictional.

The installation premiered in 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary of Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, and has since toured internationally including stops in Brazil, Paris and Lepage’s native Quebec City.

It is a collaboration between Lepage and Manguel, who have known each other since the late 1980s when Manguel was living in Toronto and writing for the magazine “Saturday Night,” and Lepage’s career was starting to soar due to the international success of theatrical works including “The Dragon’s Trilogy” and roles in films such as “Jesus of Montreal.” The two became friends and eventually Lepage visited Manguel at his then-home in the French countryside, where Manguel built a library in a medieval chapel to house his huge book collection — the experience that inspired “The Library at Night.”

When Manguel was approached by the Grande Bibliothèque to create an exhibition, he agreed on the condition that he could work with Lepage. They seized on the idea of using virtual reality which “was still kind of a hot new thing,” said Lepage, but in its developmental stages, with users having to wear helmet-like headsets. As they developed the exhibition, VR “became almost just a pair of glasses,” said Lepage. “It was quite interesting to evolve with the technology.”

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Another important part of their work was narrowing down hundreds of possible libraries to feature. The final list includes the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, libraries in Bosnia, France, Japan, and Denmark; the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt; and the fictional library in the Nautilus submarine, inspired by Jules Verne’s “Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

In the exhibition, viewers first enter an antechamber which reproduces Manguel’s personal library, and then move to a second environment evoking a mythical forest, where they put on VR headsets and virtually explore the ten libraries, with Manguel narrating. Lepage brought his theatrical skills to bear in constructing this part of the installation: “Theatre directors are contrary to film directors. We have to work differently to control where people look and what they listen to,” he said. “You have to choose for them and at the same time, they have to feel that they have the freedom to choose.”

Lepage is particularly pleased that “The Library at Night” is coming to Toronto, where Manguel lived from 1982-2000, “during which time he was an important literary life force in the city,” said Lepage. “It’s exciting for me to think that Alberto’s work is finally going to be celebrated in the Canadian city that he made his home.”

“The Library at Night” opens on March 10 at 1 Yonge Street, Toronto. For more information go to Lighthouseimmersive.com.


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