Film Review: Ex Libris: The New York Public Library


Frederick Wiseman returns to UK cinemas this week with Ex Libris, a three-hour-plus-change piece on the New York Public Library system. It’s more interesting than a three-hour documentary about libraries has any right to be, but not quite as fascinating as hoped.

“A library is not just a place to store books,” an academic declares about halfway through Ex Libris. And indeed the thesis of the film is successfully proved. The library unveils itself as an amalgam of activity, a community, a workplace, a refuge, a school and a city. Anyone aware of Wiseman’s recent work – At Berkeley, National Gallery – will already be prepared for Ex Libris. The methodology is in place, as are the themes – large institutions looked at hard and long, an accumulation of detail, a patient out-waiting for interest to emerge from the footage.

Wiseman’s latest covers the New York Public Library system in a number of locations throughout New York – there are 92 branches in total, though the film spirals back to the center of gravity represented by the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building that starred in Ghostbusters. Here we see the big hitters like Richard Dawkins talking in free lunchtime readings. We also have the various archives and research facilities, educational drop in centers for after school, the board meetings, the public outreach, the behind the scenes packing and sorting of books.

The meeting of the board struggle with issues of funding and mission. Following years of underfunding, they are finally beginning to succeed in getting some city funds back into the library system. They still need to contend with getting more every year and primary to doing that is to give the politicians a clear message as to what the library is actually there for and how it can survive as essentially a socialist idea in the cut and thrust capital of capitalism. Among the talks, minorities, black history and even Marx get a good airing before a curious, or dozing citizenry.

The library also has to adapt to new technology and help those living in what is called the ‘digital dark’, with no access to the internet. They loan out wifi hubs and phones as well as providing computers for people to access the web. We see a cancer patient researching his illness; children learning programming code to make robots move. These along instances along with the audiobooks being recorded for the visually impaired and a thousand other services show how essential the library is to many citizens.

It feels churlish to criticise the film, given that its own mission is to promote an idea of community and inclusion – “to create a kinder gentler world” according to one librarian – currently under radical attack. However, Ex Libris omits a lot of the arguments – either full throated on large policy issues or petty bickering on whether someone paid their library fines or not. It also omits the audience’s applause to the various speakers. The voices are administrators and public speakers, not the homeless who shelter in the library or the users or cleaners. It’s as if Wiseman has taken his cue from the old style librarians and has wanted to give a portrait of a community but without the inevitable noise that goes with it, issuing one long “shhh”.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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