If you work in a library, or care about learning or community, I encourage you to see Frederick Wiseman’s most recent documentary, his 41st, the Oscar-nominated Ex Libris. Filmed exclusively in New York City, Ex Libris beautifully elevates the day-to-day machinations of the New York Public Library’s four research centers and eighty-eight neighborhood branches in three boroughs (Brooklyn and Queens have their own separate library systems) into art, beauty, and service to the human community. While the movie is over three hours long and challengingly has no narration or title cards to indicate who is speaking, it is a fascinating study of the intersectionality of all members of the community. We see young students practicing their reading and computer coding after school, seniors disco dancing, and patrons borrowing hot-spot devices with their library cards. Everyone knows where to go to get what they need.
If I had to capture Ex Libris in a word, it would be alive—the film is as vibrant and multicultural and varied and interesting as New York City itself. The documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is a 1954 graduate of Yale Law School—a choice partly inspired to earn a deferment from serving in the Korean War. Wiseman has spent his career exploring the inner workings of institutions and how these organizations exist in a symbiotic relationship to their host communities.
Wiseman states that the library is “probably the most democratic institution that exists because everybody’s welcome.” You can certainly see that in action in this film. Some sequences display assembly lines of books, films, and music being processed to show us BookOps in action—the centralized intake nerve system where all acquisitions take place and materials enter the system in Long Island City. One example of an outer limb of the apparatus can be seen in the picture collection founded in 1915 that is the world’s largest circulating free picture file used by nearly every historical working artist in the city.
The movie inspires one to become more involved with one’s community. The library is shown in all of the myriad ways it engages and provides services to wherever people are when they enter the institution. It also inspires lifelong learning with popular programs such as Books at Noon, robust job fairs that take place at a Bronx library branch, and Live at the NYPL with Paul Holdengraber, whose enduring goal is offering interviews “to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful to make it levitate.”
One memorable scene for me takes place at Macomb’s Bridge Library branch in the Bronx. One visitor shared his background and stated that as a young man he could not afford to attend film school. Instead he learned typing at his local library branch and he also studied filmmaking from books found in the collection. The library was his ersatz film school. This gentleman’s story echoes the sentiment that the library is “the poor man’s university.”
A consistent theme of the movie is “Where Do We Go From Here?” NYPL President Tony Marx talks about how local libraries are no longer passive repositories of books, but instead have evolved to become engaging community education centers. Ex Libris is fascinating to watch and shows multifaceted aspects of the library and its caring staff in action. I encourage you to check it out so that it might inspire you to bring your best self to all of your interactions with your library patrons and the community.
Note: The Ex Libris DVD will be available for sale in March 2018.