Film Review: Ex Libris – The New York Public Library

Weighing in at 197 minutes, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris – The New York Public Library is a behemoth of a documentary. It is an incredibly watchable one too.

The New York Public Library has 92 branches throughout NYC. The organisation provides an almost all-encompassing resource for the diverse inhabitants of the city…

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library explores a well-known and much-loved institution. Director and producer Frederick Wiseman offers a intimate, observant portrait of the library. There are no interviews or obvious narrative arch here. Instead, Wiseman gives viewers access to the various activities that take place in the organisation’s branches.

The film offers something quite special. Viewers are taken behind the scenes at the New York Public Library, as well as to the users. The documentary operates in a fly-on-the-wall format, both Wiseman and his audience are there to observe. Wiseman invites viewers to view talks by the likes of Elvis Costello, the various queries answered by the telephonists, the board meetings, the IT courses, and the donor receptions.

As the film progresses, the story Wiseman is telling becomes clear. The director introduces themes by his choice of editing. Wiseman chooses to place seemingly divergent activities can next to each other. Ex Libris will jump from an academic lecture to a rambunctious fancy dress parade, for example. In ordering his film in this way, Wiseman underscores the importance of the institution. It is a place that serves all of society, from children learning to read to academics, from jobseekers to culture aficionados. Not only does the New York Public Library serve all from society, it provides one of the few places for all stratas of society to interact. In a world in which libraries are under threat, Wiseman’s film feels timely and necessary.

Like the institution itself, Ex Libris is a film for the curious. The film enrobes viewers in the everyday, the remarkable, and the fascinating.

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2017.