Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
HOME, 19 July 2018
Clocking in at over three hours, this is a documentary of Tolstoyan dimensions.
As with Frederick Wiseman’s other films, there is no voiceover narration, which is not to say that his camera simply observes. Rather the camera is an intelligent device which picks up on each tiny, telling detail; a consciousness ‘on which nothing is lost’, in Henry James’s famous formulation.
So we look in on managerial meetings where funding priorities and direction of policy are debated and decided. We spy a homeless guy (and not only one) fast asleep before a book. We listen to authors (Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith) talk before a genteel audience of likeminded souls, while a reader’s group lays into Love in the Time of Cholera: the book is not so much dog-eared as voraciously dog-chewed, metaphorically speaking, at the end. Nor do we evade the contrast between the grand library building in the centre of New York City and the homely, run-down branches in the wider community. Mind, the range of activities and resources we are presented with – dance classes, concerts, lessons in mathematics and programming (boys manipulating robots), facilities for research, usable archives, the provision of e-books and internet – is impressive.
Overall, Ex Libris is a very fine, very full portrait of an invaluable institution that serves its community, its various users and stakeholders (not least children), well.