At first glance, a library seems to be just that—a collection of books, a place that’s occasionally visited for a book that’s too expensive to purchase or for a bit of information not available online. Nowadays in the age of the internet, we’ve come to believe we no longer need physical libraries.
Renowned documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (In Jackson Heights) set out to prove that misconception wrong with a deep exploration into the New York Public Library in his latest film, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. What he uncovers and captures is remarkable.
Spread across 92 branches, the New York Public Library shows itself proudly as much more than just a few books on a shelf; rather, it’s the epitome of community and inclusion in the heart of a city that has groaned beneath the weight of social and political issues for decades.
Over the span of three hours and 17 minutes, Wiseman explores almost every aspect of the library, showcasing the vastness of the institution while highlighting the all-encompassing nature of its resources and programming. Beyond the books, tables and computers, the New York Public Library offers regular job fairs and employment opportunities, panels with famous authors, social leaders and experts speaking on a range of topics from religion to science to art, after-school programs and tutoring opportunities for children, and much more.
And behind each sector of programming exists a group of people with their hearts fully invested, passionate about ensuring the library’s offerings meet the needs of not just some but all New Yorkers, from the rich and well-educated to the poor and underprivileged, and everyone else in between. It’s this great peek behind the curtain that Wiseman uses to show just how much thought, energy and devotion goes into each detail of the library.
In true Wiseman style, the film is void of narration and composed interviews, protecting the viewer from any chance of getting too attached to just one aspect or character. Rather, he keeps the cameras rolling, relying on a thorough editing process to craft hours and hours of raw footage into a perfectly flowing piece that tells The New York Public Library’s story as only a seasoned filmmaker like Wiseman can.
What he uncovers along the way is a growing catalyst for education, enlightenment and inclusion throughout the entire city. Truly, a library is so much more than just a set of books. Especially in the 21st century.
In fact, the staff of the New York Public Library are tasked with figuring out how to use the unique position of the library to drive enhancements for the digital age. This just might be the most unique insight that Wiseman offers viewers through Ex Libris.
Something as simple as accessing the internet can be a complex issue in New York City where many people are still without access, leaving the underprivileged even further marginalized. Wiseman takes us into staff debates on uncovering and implementing the best solutions for tackling this problem to level the digital playing field for all ages and races. And perhaps by making the internet something that is accessible to all classes of people, inclusion can take a great step forward, with the New York Public Library to thank for it.
Don’t let the length of this film distract you. Ex Libris is a vivid reminder of the power that education can hold and the social good it can encourage when made available to all people.