The Virtual World of Books

Of course, we book lovers are well accustomed to keeping ourselves entertained within our own four walls. But despite this, the restrictions on public life are impacting us too: libraries and museums have closed, exhibitions have been postponed. With this in mind, we’ve put together a selection of digital experiences and content provided by libraries and museums, so that you can access the whole wide world of books from the comfort of your home. The range of available digital options has grown rapidly in recent years. Perhaps this period of staying at home will be a good opportunity to discover this online content and catch up on anything you’ve missed!

Page from the Breviary of Martin of Aragon, National Library of France. From the “Royal Book Collections” exhibition on Europeana.

Online Exhibitions in English

Online exhibitions have their advantages and disadvantages. Of course, you don’t get that first-hand experience of the original artifacts and exhibition space. But let’s be honest – you’re not usually allowed to touch the original artifacts in museums anyway.

One benefit of these online options is that you can explore library and museum exhibitions across the world from the comfort of your own home – which is obviously a key advantage in the current situation. In the last few years, a wide range of cultural institutions have made online exhibitions a permanent feature of their websites – there’s something out there for everyone.

Europeana, which is sort of like the big brother of the German Digital Library, provides access to millions of digitized artifacts from cultural institutions across Europe. It is now home to 47 exhibitions in English, some of which relate to the world of books. We found two of these exhibitions particularly interesting: this one, in which major royal book collections of Europe are virtually reconstructed, and “The Rise of Literacy in Europe,” which is all about the history of literacy in Europe.

The British Library website is an incredibly useful source, with online, English-language exhibitions and articles on a wide range of topics. If you think you’d enjoy learning about British literary history, we particularly recommend the “Discovering Literature” category.

The website of the Smithsonian Libraries, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., also features a wide range of online exhibitions. Among our favorites are “Fantastic Worlds – Science and Fiction 1780-1910,” and, something a little different but just as fascinating, “Czech Book Covers of the 1920s and 1930s,” an online exhibition all about the design of book covers in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s.

On the Cambridge University Library website, you can find a great many exciting exhibitions on a wide range of topics. Here are just some of the topics on offer: Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius, the mystification of the death of Captain Cook, the Battle of Waterloo in books, the Early Modern practice of womb fumigation (!), French medieval manuscripts in Cambridge, and interpretations of Don Quixote. It’s certainly worth a browse!

The splendid Admont Abbey Library in Austria. © Jorge Royan CC BY-SA 3.0

Virtual Library Tours

It’s not just the books that are beautiful: the libraries themselves are also very appealing, and those spaces are much harder to digitally recreate than books. It is possible, however – lots of websites are now offering “virtual tours” using three-dimensional images.

For instance, you could take a “tour” of the magnificent State Hall of the National Library of Austria within the Hofburg palace in Vienna.

On a virtual visit to the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, you can actually do something that you wouldn’t be able to in real life – at the press of a button, you can travel backwards and forwards through time, toggling between the digital model library as it is now, the library before the devastating fire of 2004, and the shocking images of the library right after the fire.

We also recommend taking a look at the website of Admont Abbey, which is located in Styria and home to a huge baroque monastic library, the largest in the world and also, evidently, one of the most beautiful. The Abbey recently announced an extensive range of new virtual content, starting in a few days. This content will include digital tours – which are VR compatible, meaning users can experience them with virtual reality glasses – and much more. Unlike all other possibilities we present to you here, this one is not free of charge, although 1,49€ is a very reasonable price.

You can also explore the famous Library Hall of the Clementinum, formerly the Jesuit college in Prague, online – more thoroughly, in fact, than you could in person; on a real tour in Prague, you would only be able to poke your head into the hall, as you’re not allowed to step inside!

Thanks to Google Arts and Culture, you can “explore” a wide range of other libraries, such as the large library at the Mafra National Palace in Portugal.

What else?

Let’s stay with Google Arts and Culture, which has an enormous range of books on offer. Click here to scroll through the countless options available – you’re sure to find something that catches your interest!

Digitization enables us to reunite artifacts that used to belong in the same collection but have now been separated. That’s what happened to one of the world’s most important collections of books, the Bibliotheca Palatina. Divided for centuries, it has now been digitally reconstructed as part of a project. You can find out more about this project and the history of the collection, as well as topics such as illumination and individual books from the collection, such as the legendary Codex Manesse, on the project website.

Over the last few years, the Vatican Apostolic Library, which has gained a reputation as being somewhat like the Area 51 of the book world (not least thanks to the works of Dan Brown), has digitized an astonishing number of artifacts and made them accessible to the public. Were there any secret writings that didn’t get digitized? Well, we’d rather not mention that here…

So as you can see, even if you’re stuck at your computer at home, there are still plenty of ways to lose yourself in the wide world of books. This is just a small selection of the online options available for book lovers. We hope you’ll find something that interests you!