Ex Libris: New York Public Library
2017, NR, 197 min. Directed by Frederick Wiseman.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Oct. 27, 2017
My first memory: I am 3 years old and running into a library on a Midwestern winter’s day, tracking slushy snow onto the marbled surroundings, my mittens already sashaying on their clips, hands eager to grasp a book, but first my mother’s hand, as I was wrangled by an adept librarian. That impression lingered throughout Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary Ex Libris: New York Public Library, an examination of the many facets of that venerable institution.
Wiseman’s observational style of filmmaking makes it clear that a library is no mere storage space for books. From job fairs and community outreach programs to services for immigrants, Ex Libris documents the myriad roles of the public library: a man recording Nabokov for the blind, a woman teaching someone to read Braille, a talk by Richard Dawkins, children learning math in an afterschool program, a librarian assisting in determining the lineage of Werner Herzog, a seminar on how to find housing if you are disabled. There are so many wonderful activities of compassion that Wiseman captures that my heart burst about a dozen times (a conservative estimate). He intercuts between these various depictions of the NYPL with executive meetings where policy and the future of libraries are discussed: civic engagement, public/private partnerships, and e-book licensing fees. What Wiseman does (as he does so well), is achieve a layered effect over the course of the (I swear!) breezy run time that is a culmination of humanity at its most complex, its need to learn, explore, and assist each other, although the many scenes of patrons on laptops, phones, and tablet devices throughout the film wryly and gently undercut that sentiment. To quote one of the nameless board members: “Libraries are the pillar of our democracy.” That couldn’t be more evident with Wiseman’s effective and engrossing film. When was the last time you renewed your library card?