BFI LFF: Ex Libris (2017)

Frederick Wiseman’s compelling and comprehensive documentary reveals the fascinating behind-the-scenes work of a monumental American institution, the New York Public Library.

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by Joyce Glasser

Ex Libris

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

By kind permission of Mature Times

In Frederick Wiseman’s long (197 minutes), but absorbing new documentary, Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library, the library’s management team discuss a conundrum that has its parallels in a critic’s choice of films at the London Film Festival. How can the library balance the demand for e-books and best sellers with its social commitment to stocking a research book or an intellectually challenging novel that might not be available anywhere else? Now 87, Frederick Wiseman has just delivered a heart warming masterwork about the value of knowledge that was not a popular choice.


For fifty years Wiseman has been taking us behind the scenes of institutions: a hospital for the criminally insane; a juvenile court; a slaughterhouse; a high school (twice); a hospital; the Paris Opera and more recently, London’s National Gallery. His technique has not varied. There is no score, no narration, no expository captions and no overt evidence of the director’s presence.

Sidestepping the magnificent Boston Public Library, Wiseman, a Bostonian, has chosen the larger and more complex, New York Public Library. With eighty-eight neighbourhood branches throughout Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, (Brooklyn and Queens have their own systems) and four major research centres, profiling the Library in film is a daunting task. Wiseman is accustomed to it.

It is in the editing room that he makes his films: in Belfast, Maine, he used four out of 110 hours of footage. ‘My films [are] based on un-staged, un-manipulated actions.’ he has said. ‘The editing is highly manipulative and the shooting is highly manipulative…’ It is through his choices that we get a glimpse into the invisible director’s mind and values as he subtly evinces what is important in the world.

The visit begins at the elegant, monumental 1911 flagship library on Fifth at 42nd street, where we are thrown in media res into a ‘Books at Noon’ lecture by ethnologist, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. ‘The non-religious lobby is at least 20%; larger than any one religious sect.’ he argues. ‘Sensible religious people have no problem with evolution. We are privileged to live after Darwin, after Newton and after Einstein…’ It appears that each event and speaker is chosen with the specific user-base in mind.


Before leaving the Library’s hub, recognisable by its two enormous stone lions, Wiseman casts an eye on the role of the client-interfacing staff. A service-minded phone-librarian, who has apparently been asked about the first recorded appearance of a unicorn, answers, ‘1225’. Pressed for a detail he adds, ‘I’ll have to translate from the Middle English which I’m not so good at.’ He’s modest and manages admirably.

Across the street from the main branch is the world’s largest free circulation picture file, designed to inform and inspire everyone from artists and set designers to advertisers. Opened in 1915 at the height of NYC’s immigration influx and organised by subject matter, we are shown the file ‘Dogs in action’ and asked to look at the different styles of photographs and images as well as the different dogs and actions. Andy Warhol, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and the reclusive Joseph Connell (the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2015) all made use of this resource. Connell never left New York, but his ‘boxes’ are full of travel-inspired memories, some apparently borrowed from this very collection.

As we begin a tour of selected branches, establishing shots situate each building in the neighbourhood it serves. For some, books are not the main attraction and we get a taste of the ways in which the Library fulfils its mission to be an all inclusive provider of knowledge. There are dance classes for the over 50s; and after-school tutoring for disadvantaged youngsters; a job fair in a Bronx library, a music recital (with not one young or white face in the crowd); computer classes for the city’s Asian population (and books in Chinese) and a demonstration of signing at theatrical events for deaf audiences in The Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts. In the Braille and Talking Books Library we watch a blind customer learn to read Braille and later hear two actors making a recording for talking books.

Authors and other artists are evidently part of the library’s 55,000 programmes. In addition to Dawkins’ appearance at Books at Noon, we are treated to an interview with Elvis Costello, a session with Patti Smith and a hilarious, eye-opening discourse on the history of the New York Delicatessen. The speaker begins with a rhetorical question about why the city is called the Big Apple. ‘Apples are not the first thing you want to eat when you come to NYC’, he points out. ‘You want a pastrami sandwich. Both,’ he quickly adds, ‘have sexual connotations.’

We pay more than one visit to the prestigious Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which, in the year Wiseman was shooting, 2015, was the recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. This honour may well be due to the influence of its director since 2011, the engaging African-American studies scholar, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

Begun 92 years ago with the collections of the remarkable Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Center holds the world’s foremost collection of African-American culture and historical documents. Wiseman does not introduce us to the various staff members, board members or philanthropists but, after sitting through discussions about the cost of digitalizing the collections and improving the class divide through access to the internet, we are primed to look it up on our computers.

Books are not entirely forgotten, although it appears that newly appointed architects have latched onto the ‘information store’ image of libraries as places where people can hang out. To counter this trend, Wiseman takes us into a book group and as the participants delve into an engrossing discussion of Love in the Time of Cholera, you might find yourself reluctant to move on to the next stop.

Toward the end of the film, when the Library’s hands-on director, Anthony W. Marx, reflects on the need for light touch when it comes to rough sleepers, you might be reminded of the massive closure of libraries across the UK. Marx wants to make the public/private partnership (40% of funding is from private sources) the focus of management attention to maximize the ever-strained budget and ensure that no resident of New York City is left in the dark.

Ex Libris premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

BFI London Film Festival 2017

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