In December 2015, I visited the National Library and Archives of Quebec – Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) – to see the exhibition of “The Library at Night – Great libraries of the world in a virtual-reality universe.” What made this exhibition unique was that visitors explored the 10 world libraries in a virtual environment by wearing a Samsung Gear VR (Virtual Reality) headset. According to the library, this exhibition was inspired by the essay of Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (available at IUPUI – physical book or e-book) and designed by the Ex Machina production company with VR technologies.
It took me an hour to have virtual tours of the 10 world libraries – some of them I already visited (e.g., Canadian Library of Parliament) while some I’ve never visited so far. In spite of 360° video, I still recognized that it was all virtual. It didn’t allow me to go upstairs or downstairs. Even I couldn’t go near bookshelves myself. However, it was very fun and interesting experience with virtual reality. This allowed me to see the dome and ceiling so closely in the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building and ancient Alexandria library with papyrus rolls – both of which I can’t experience in reality.
I’ve heard the word, virtual reality, in the last few years as it seemed one of the buzzwords from industry to industry. Facebook acquired Oculus VR in 2014; Google is developing a VR headset; and Samsung released its Gear VR. On the hardware side of the virtual reality, I can see its improvement like better experience in a 3D environment, better quality of display and etc. However, on the software or VR content side, I think that there is not yet much content.
After my experience with the virtual exhibition, it came to my mind that libraries could play a significant role to provide and archive content for virtual reality, not only for education but also cultural preservation. For example, University of Adelaide – University Libraries implemented the virtual reality pilot project in 2015 and developed two products; one was the 360 ° film-based library tour like the real world and the other was to create a demonstration for students to develop information literacy skills like a game. Our Digital Scholarship Outreach Librarian, Jenny Johnson, is working with Online Resources Inc, to digitize artifacts from the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site which could be used to build content for virtual reality.
I know that it still sounds just “Think Big,” but technologies have developed and improved over time. The libraries used to keep physical materials in physical locations, but these days, they try to digitize to make physical materials available online (e.g., our digital collections). In addition, they continuously collect and archive new formats of information like tweets. The libraries would provide and collect VR content which could be used as a primary source for the historical events in the future. The Bibliotheca Alexandria would have captured and preserved before having burned down, so that we could experience its original library now.