Film Review: Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Frederick Wiseman’s 43rd film is as complex and fascinating as his first, released five decades ago.
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On its surface, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library celebrates the library as an institution. But, in keeping with his previous documentaries, director Frederick Wiseman suggests something more profound than a mere recording of the activities taking place at different branches of a venerable archive. Though it runs over three hours and takes a little patience to fully grasp, Wiseman’s latest opus is deserving of widespread regard, much like libraries themselves.

As coverage of the current state of affairs at the New York Public Library, Ex Libris more than suffices as a straightforward document. Yet Wiseman’s specific cinéma vérité approach delves deeply into the nuances of issues both acknowledged and ignored by the people on camera.

Essentially, Ex Libris presents a series of scenes that take place at 11 of the 92 branches of the NYPL. We begin with a lecture by author Richard Dawkins in the main mid-Manhattan branch, the elegant Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Right away, we may note a sense of irony in the way Dawkins discusses the virtues of atheism to a rapt audience in a marble hall that mimics a cathedral of sorts. (The “religion” being honored here is ethology and scientific thought.)

Other lectures follow, most of them also at the main building, from celebrity writers, artists and musicians—Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates and more. In between these talks, we peep in during various staff meetings involving the head administrators, including president Anthony W. Marx and Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy, concerning multiple topics, most crucially the financial and logistical challenges of transitioning from a traditional library service to one suited for the electronic age.

We also visit other branches, where we see young students getting laptop instruction; elderly students enjoying a disco dance class; an appreciative audience listening to a band concert; nervous interns receiving a rare materials orientation; and eager applicants networking at a job fair.

Clearly, Wiseman respects the well-meaning efforts by all those involved in library operations. He also affirms the greatness of this particular library, one that benefits so many by making education and information accessible to those in New York City and beyond. Yet a pointed, troubling undercurrent pervades the entire three hours and 17 minutes.

Both Wiseman’s choices of shots and dialectical editing, from the main branch to the outer boroughs and back, suggest the filmmaker rejects the conventional wisdom that the NYPL is a completely egalitarian system. Not only does the Schwarzman Building at 41st Street and Fifth Avenue look better maintained, it also evokes something grander and more stately than any of the satellites in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or even the other parts of Manhattan.

The contrasting mise-en-scène makes it clear where the bulk of the money goes (just as the private donations render the “public” label misleading). The kinds of activities also underscore the differences: classes in braille for the blind take place at the Andrew Heiskell library on 20th Street, far away from Midtown; and a lively discussion about limited funds occurs at the Macomb’s Bridge branch in Harlem, a nondescript red brick building that resembles a housing settlement.

The clearest sign of disparity comes during those scenes of fancy dinner parties for the donors.  One of these candle-lit events—and the fussy staff preparations around the dining table—takes place after the mostly white patrons adjourn a meeting about what literature should be acquired for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is located again in Harlem.

With his mixture of reverence and reservation, Wiseman recalls Alain Resnais’ superb 1956 short Toute la mémoire du monde, which explores the vast literary riches of the Bibliothèque nationale and how the shared memory of information is a vital aspect of any culture. Even more explicitly than Resnais, though, Wiseman probes how access to such “public” material is put in doubt when the housing of the works (and the choice of what works ought to be housed) is left up to a select few.

Thus, the title, Ex Libris, a reference to the fancy insignias that once identified the provenance of publications, takes on more than one meaning: just who “owns” books, words, thoughts? Wiseman doesn’t answer that question, but he does raise the issue, which is worth a post-screening debate as much as any of the riveting lectures heard within the film itself.

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