[Film Review] Ex Libris, The New York Public Library, by Frederick Wiseman

Some uninformed idiot recently suggested in a Forbes Op-Ed that libraries are not worth Americans’ tax dollars and should be replaced instead with Amazon bookstores. The second part of the argument is so outlandish that I won’t even bother addressing it here, but the first sadly merits some attention. Thankfully, the backlash against the op-ed was immediate and crushing, leading to the publications retraction by the magazine – a sign that all is not yet lost in this world. Plenty of counter-articles have summarised the many levels on which the initial assertion was wrong, but I would like to draw attention to Ex Libris, a documentary on the New York Public Library that neatly summarises it all by introducing us to the third largest and most visited library system in the world (55 million items and 18 million visitors).

Wiseman takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to documentary filmmaking (no voice-over, no talking heads). This is not a style I am particularly fond of, but it fits the subject well. Rather than engaging in a sterile debate with detractors of the Forbes kind, he simply lets the places and the people speak for themselves. What could have been some high-minded lecture on the benefits of public libraries simply lets us come to our own conclusions. We are allowed into board meetings where funding is discussed, presentations to classes at the picture collection, public conferences on topics far and wide (the anti-slavery movement in Islam, the depiction of second generation immigrant Jewish life in the lower east side …), job fairs and recruitment meetings, children’s classes. Without any driving narrative, the experience is akin to that of actually browsing a library, where one picks up a book, and more often than not gets sucked in for a few minutes, only to put the book back on the shelf and move on.

In between these scenes are shots of users peering at books and screens, taking notes in illegible handwriting, browsing, sleeping, playing video games or scrolling down their Facebook wall, browsing the shelves, reading on benches… Whatever people are doing, the observer makes no commentary, emits no judgment. The implicit message is that the library system serves many purposes to a great diversity of people. It isn’t simply a place to read, even to access knowledge, but can be a quiet get-away, a place to meet, or access the internet when it is unavailable at home.

There is no artifice to be found in Wiseman’s approach. The camera rarely moves. In fact, it tends to linger, giving his subjects the time to develop their points without any editing shortcuts, and us viewers the time to be drawn in. The sound is unaltered, so that we can hear the silence and all that fills it: the low whir of computers, the echo of a racking cough, the swish-sound that punctuates the turning of pages. This isn’t a film about what libraries should or shouldn’t be, but what they already are. It gets a little dull after a while (the runtime of over three hours) and yet, because libraries garner so little attention for the valuable work they quietly do, this catalogue of good deeds feels like a valuable testimony to what they can be. You may not want to watch Ex Libris the whole way through or even at all – I confess to have skipped ahead a few times – but it is reassuring to know that the film is available to refute the idiocy of those who would have us do away with public libraries.