Frederick Wiseman has a reputation for documentaries that explore the inner workings of an institution. He is a skilled and reputable documentary filmmaker because he is able to allow his camera to simply guide his viewer through the daily operations of the chosen institution. Indeed it is often a surprise while watching his movies to return to the realization that the camera is in fact in the room. It is the hope that the subjects of the documentary have this same feeling, and Wiseman’s success in this area is likely why his documentaries feel so intimate and real.
In Ex Libris, Wiseman selects the New York Public Library as his subject. The library was established in 1895 and is currently sustained through a combination of public and private funds. It is one of the largest libraries on the planet and its branches provide an immense variety of services and resources for various communities. Wiseman explores these different services and different communities in great depth.
The film opens with a talk at the main branch given by famous intellectual Richard Dawkins. Dawkins discusses one of his favorite topics: religion. However, Wiseman isn’t looking for the viewer to think about religion as much as the very nature of knowledge and how we learn. This establishes the tone of much of the rest of the film as Wiseman explores the different ways that the library helps its patrons gain knowledge on a wide variety of topics. In a very interesting scene, Wiseman takes the camera into one of the computer rooms of the library and looks over the shoulder of various computer users. Some are doing research, others working on correspondence, and some are even playing games. Many people operate in the same room using the library’s resources to engage in a massive variety of different tasks.
The structure of the film is heavily segmented. Wiseman jumps to different talks given at the library whether they’re prevalent intellectuals talking about their work or public employees talking to low income families about services they offer. He explores the different library branches whether they’re the large, regal, age-old main branch with its famous lion statues out front or small and underfunded branches in low income parts of the city. He takes the viewer frequently into staff meetings with the major library executives and even into a meeting of the board of directors who oversee the big picture items for the library.
The main theme explored in the film is diversity. Wiseman’s ventures into the branches emphasize the importance of the library as both an educational tool and community outreach for many of New York’s marginalized minority communities. Wiseman emphasizes several of the specific programs designed to help bring communities together and he features speakers who discuss the history of racial inequality in the Unites States. This deeper study of the library’s function really helps the viewer to understand why it is not simply a beloved cultural icon, but an important staple of public life in New York.
I’ll admit that I got some funny looks from my family when I told them that I was driving to the movie theater to see a three and a half hour documentary about the New York Public Library. Certainly this film will not be enjoyable for all audiences. But if you can find the endurance, it is a surprisingly powerful and extremely engaging work. I didn’t feel the fatigue of the movie’s run time the way that one might think. It is a compelling and educational exploration of one of the most longstanding and significant institutions in the United States.