Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

By: Jessica Goddard

Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is a slow and detailed documentary about the vast institution of the New York Public Library (not to be confused with its famous headquarters in Midtown Manhattan).  The film focuses on the NYPL’s many branches and services and functions, offering long samples of footage of what goes on from day-to-day in different branches, ranging from the micro to the macro.  Famous speakers and authors introduce big ideas and philosophies to engaged crowds, followed by clips of children being helped with their reading by patient, dedicated instructors elsewhere.

Wiseman’s signature style offers no narration, explanation, or direct information.  Impressively, it’s as if you’re simultaneously there in the room for every conversation, and as if you’re not there at all.  The film also succeeds in showcasing the massive scope of influence and involvement the NYPL has in its city.

It also poses some important and interesting questions worth asking.  What role can libraries play in modern communities, with the increase of universal reliance on digital technology?  To what degree can public programs bridge the gap between a city’s rich and poor?  At what point does the original library concept cease to be and instead become something new?  That said, these thoughts could certainly be entertained by a shorter film.

It’s worth noting that this is a pretty highbrow documentary concept.  For all its talk of the poor and undereducated, a significant portion of the film’s scenes aren’t particularly accessible to the common viewer.  It’s expected that the audience is sophisticated enough to follow what’s being said in board rooms and at prestigious author’s events.  And since Wiseman’s format insists on providing no explanations, there’s something uniquely condescending about this.

Of course, there are some neat things to be learned from this film – cool facts and unexpected details – but I’m not sure those moments are worth slogging through the parts that are (subjectively) dull and self-indulgent.  My problem is that Wiseman’s style, which can easily be called meditative genius, can just as easily be interpreted as lazy and accidental.

Those already familiar with Wiseman’s template and reputation will enjoy this lengthy documentary, but those hoping for the standard format exploring the history, architecture, and vision for the famous institution will be frustrated.


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