Ex Libris: The New York Public Library Review

The release of Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library makes it 41 feature film documentaries and counting, the master of observational cinema is still as committed as ever to taking us behind the scenes of key institutions and organisations as he has done for the past 50 years. At almost three-and-a-half hours long his latest release is in keeping with the length of many of his recent efforts, using the same understated style that has seen him influence the genre for so long.

A three hour plus documentary set in a library without commentary may not sound like the average cinema goers perfect night out, but for those interested in looking beyond the surface of a building so many of us take for granted, it acts as a reminder of the integral role it can play in every community. Obviously, the New York Public Library’s reach – which encompasses 92 local branches in all – is far larger than most, but the principles of diversity, education and local outreach remain the same no matter how large or small.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is the main branch of the library and is the space where Wiseman spends most of his time. It opens with renowned atheist Richard Dawkins being interviewed on stage, the first of a handful of famous faces which include Patti Smith and Elvis Costello, who are also filmed participating in their own Q&As in the building at various times.

Ex Libris attempts to take in the full scope of activities and functions the library offers to New York, covering everything from musical and poetry recitals, job fairs, book clubs, lecture series, skill classes and the ongoing work to support communities across the five boroughs. We also sit in on budget and funding meetings with President Anthony Marx and other members of senior management, which are some of the least interesting aspects of the film. In of themselves these segments are illuminating in places, highlighting the extent of the commitment to a host of projects in less privileged areas of the city but we return to the meeting room a little once too often.

What these moments do highlight – whether intentionally or not – is the lack of diversity in the upper reaches of management in organisations such as this. People of colour are few and far between at this level and this is only exacerbated further when Wiseman goes into the hidden caverns of the building where the menial low-paid jobs of sorting, labelling and packing are carried out and the racial make-up is almost the complete opposite.

Wiseman intermittently visits a handful of the branches where some of the specialist areas are taken care of, such as content for the blind and a vast physical image library featuring over a million photographs taken since the early 20th century. Smaller, more localised libraries focus on children education, while those working in the Queensbridge library try to create a self-educational environment for kids who may otherwise be drawn towards low level crime.

By showing so many of the talks, lectures and intellectual discussions taking place, Ex Libris itself serves as a representation of the magnitude of random information held within the walls of the library’s many buildings. These snatches only last a few minutes at most but capture enough of your attention for you to want them to continue, before Wiseman cuts away elsewhere. But his camera isn’t solely focussed on the people in charge of the various activities because he is just as interested in those sitting in the audience.

This giant library is a microcosm of the city itself, a vast collection of activity, interests and information all finding a way to co-exist alongside one another. Wiseman’s static approach to filmmaking perfectly suits an environment that brings together a mass of people in union, each one pollinating their mind in perfect silence. Whether it’s searching for the lineage of Werner Herzog (as one lady appears to be), using Google Maps, searching through newspaper archives or just plain reading, libraries act as a space for neutralising many of the identity traits that separate us from one another out in the wider world, a place where everyone is equal in their pursuit of knowledge.


Some may find it a little long for their tastes but it mostly manages to justify its length.


out of 10

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