Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, the 41st documentary feature by Frederick Wiseman, bears a close resemblance to its subject. It’s huge (197 minutes) and incredibly varied, with something new and interesting popping up every time you turn the corner. And as with a public library, the sheer magnitude of the movie can make you a little drowsy. Wiseman is a master editor, capable of sustaining a documentary for two, three, or even four hours, but compared, for instance, to his 1997 masterpiece Public Housing, which also ran about 200 minutes, the new film can feel static and self-indulgent, the work of an octogenarian (born in 1930) who thinks he’s earned the right to relax and enjoy himself. Fortunately you can catch 40 winks in a darkened theater and no one will be any the wiser; if you sleep in the library, they’ll throw you out.

Knocking Wiseman may get me thrown out—of my profession—because he’s the greatest living documentary maker, his long filmography constituting one of the most important sociological records in U.S. history. Since making his debut in 1967 with Titicut Follies, shot at a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally insane, Wiseman has created a body of work as recognizable for its form as its content. His films are notoriously austere: no voice-over commentary, no talking-head interviews, no music score, no animation or reenactments or other monkey business; just silent, steady observation. This monkish aesthetic harmonizes perfectly with his career-long curiosity about how institutions operate, allowing you to settle down, slow your heart rate, and slip into the fluorescent-lit corridors of whatever bureaucratic world he’s investigating.

What I like to call the Winnebago phase of Wiseman’s career began about ten years ago, when he began to shift his attention from civic institutions to cultural ones—the Paris Opera Ballet (La Danse); the historic Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris (Crazy Horse); R. Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas (Boxing Gym); the National Gallery in London (National Gallery). Ex Libris closely resembles the last of these in its ambitious scope and often fascinating glimpses of business and logistical concerns that the public rarely sees. The New York library system is a real leviathan for Wiseman, so vast and multifaceted that it encompasses every other topic he’s ever approached. To keep it all on track, he shuttles from scenes of librarians at work to public talks by visiting authors to lengthy staff meetings dominated by the library’s urbane president, Tony Marx.

Most people dread staff meetings, but Wiseman can’t get enough of them; to his credit the issues being discussed all speak to the larger question of what a library ought to be in the 21st century. As framed by Marx, the New York Public Library is a profoundly democratizing institution, providing New Yorkers of all classes with not only books and other media but a range of information and public services. One meeting centers on the concept of the “inclusive city,” one that values the needs of all citizens equally, and how the New York library might serve as anchor for the inclusive “OneNYC” initiative announced by Mayor de Blasio. Another meeting about how to handle homeless patrons is notably egalitarian, at least for the camera. “Everyone recognizes that the library has a responsibility to serve all patrons and to be welcoming,” Marx says. “But there is sometimes a tension between what one kind of patron needs and what another kind of patron needs, and so lines have to be drawn about, ‘How do we accommodate people together who may not always want to be together?'”

In a sense, the authors sitting for live Q&As at the central library are stand-ins for their books, and Wiseman lets their talks play out for minutes at a time. Ted Merwin, author of the scholarly volume Pastrami on Rye, holds forth on the importance of the Jewish deli in American culture, and poet Yusef Komunyakaa explains how listening to the blues taught him the art of insinuation. Elvis Costello, discussing his memoir, introduces a video clip of his father, a British bandleader of the 1950s and ’60s, and Patti Smith, talking about her memoir, cites the influence of Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, which she praises as “completely true and simultaneously completely false.” To break up the visual monotony of the talks, Wiseman will present a string of close-ups showing captivated audience members, but the sessions can get a little stifling; on the rare occasions when Wiseman ventures out onto the streets surrounding the building, I wanted to gasp for air.

As in many of Wiseman’s documentaries, the most illuminating moments in Ex Libris are those that show rank-and-file people doing their jobs, which reveal the multitude of ways the library serves the public. One staffer coaches a patron on how to locate naturalization records that might help her nail down an ancestor’s history; another briefs a group of visitors on how to handle the art-print collection. In the children’s library, young staffers supervise as school-age kids go over their homework, play educational computer games, and make origami animals. There are open recruitment sessions for civil service employment, the army, the border patrol, and the Small Business Administration. In the back offices, rare books are photographed page by page as part of the library’s digital migration program, and an actor in a sound room performs a novel for an audiobook recording. Best of all, Wiseman visits the giant conveyor belt where staffers route an endless stream of returned items into plastic crates to be trucked back to their original branches.

Scenes such as these remind you that, like the library system, Wiseman’s work is powered by the democratic impulse, arriving invariably at the question of how well an institution serves its people. During the “inclusive city” discussion, one member of Marx’s staff recalls Andrew Carnegie’s 19th-century dream of giving everyone in America access to a library within walking distance; later in the movie that same ideal gets a 21st-century update as assembled patrons listen to a librarian review the strict rules for checking out a Wi-Fi hotspot device. In the new information age, the cash-strapped public libraries of America have been derided by some as relics of the past; Ex Libris proves that the idea of the library is still going strong, though the idea of “the public” may be another matter.  v