Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)
Documentary master Frederick Wiseman’s newest film is a 3-hour plus exploration of the expansive 92-branch New York Public Library System. Though I have no background with Wiseman’s filmography, I am aware of his observational style and his repeated focus on studying American institutions. As someone who grew up an avid reader (especially of classical literature) and spent time working in a library early in his life, I am incredibly intrigued by what this film may have to say about an establishment that must constantly change to keep up with advancements in technology and the way people seek out information. The runtime of Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is intimidating, but I’m betting on Wiseman’s reputation and checking this one out.
If I asked you to tell me the first word that comes to your mind when I say “library”, what would you say? It’s likely the vast majority of us would all give the same answer to that question. “Books”, of course. The word library is even synonymous with books. The Latin translation of Ex libris is simply “from the books.” In Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Wiseman shows us the evolved institution that has come “from the books” but grown into something so much more.
The public library is no longer just a place that we go to read. In this massive documentary, Wiseman intertwines a series of ongoing meetings highlighting the library’s attempts to continue adapting to the digital age with observational footage of patrons utilizing the library spaces and resources in a countless different ways. The meetings were especially intriguing to me because we learn some of the challenges that encompass the enormous task of servicing millions of citizens with an expanded online presence. But many of the snapshots of users were intriguing as well. We see interpreters teaching how tone impacts their interpretations by having attendees read from the Declaration of Independence – one angry, one pleading. We see the inner workings of this gargantuan library system by way of the factory-like environment used to ship books between its 92 branches. We see dance classes, celebrity speeches, and a fascinating project in which the library checks out wi-fi devices and provides free internet service to local community members. There is much that is intriguing in the stories seen, and Wiseman transitions between them expertly, every so often giving us a pause with an establishing shot of an outside fountain or courtyard, or of an empty hall. There is simply no questioning Wiseman’s mastery of his craft and this style of documentary filmmaking.
Where Wiseman perhaps falters, though, is in his insistence on making this film three hours long. I can’t help but feel that if it was shorter, and thus more accessible, it might have a wider impact by being seen more. It’s hard to imagine many viewers sitting down to watch this and not turning it off halfway through, because the message is clear right away – the library is more than just books. How much time each individual viewer is willing to spend in these moments is going to be a very personal thing.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. At times I was simultaneously captivated and exhausted. Despite the film’s length, most moments were interesting enough to hold my attention. It may have been an unintended consequence that the film was educational beyond its message of showing how vast a library’s impact can be, but I emerged more knowledgeable than before. As much a master editor as anything else, Wiseman has proven to me that the praise he receives is warranted. This is a film that epitomizes the Aristotle coined-phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and while not a must-see for everyone, for those willing to embrace and breathe in the library for a few hours it will be well worth the investment.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.