Throughout his long career as a documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman has exhibited a fascination with the relationship between institution and community – the refusal of the notion that one simply houses the other: previous studies include National Gallery, La Danse, about the Paris Opera Ballet, and In Jackson Heights, a portrait of the Jackson Heights neighbourhood in Queens, New York. His most recent documentary on this theme, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, covers a broader stretch of the city through its libraries, whirling us around the three boroughs – Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island – which contain the NYPL's 87 branches.
Ex Libris is an intense three hours of film. There is no voiceover, talking heads or overt involvement on Wiseman's part; rather, it unravels as a string of short episodes – or consecutive bursts of passion, portraying not only conventional scenes of learning but the broad nature of the Library's work, putting paid to what the institution means to those who use it, over a stretch of 2015. Such bursts include: a frenetic jobs fair; a meeting of the board of directors about the integration of public and private funding; the exhortations of Harlem residents to keep that funding flowing to their libraries in the face of racially-motivated inflation; an OAP dance class; a seminar on Marxism and slavery; an interview with Patti Smith.
All are infused with the participators' interest in and desire to do well by the Library, an institution with a legacy of education to uphold while remaining a locus for the city's residents. What Wiseman shows us is, as a visiting professor puts it, that libraries are not about books, but about people.
This Janus-like outlook on past and future means that the Library's temporal reach is as non-linear as Wiseman's cartographical navigation of the city. Everyone involved with the NYPL believes in the ineradicable nature of its heritage: the pace of the film's impassioned vignettes is slowed by quiet, static shots of the main branch's marble interiors: empty spiral staircases and ivory hallways, the grand lobby calm in the middle of the day, the only noise the sound of the traffic outside – the traditional symbols of an institution maintained by historic amounts of wealth, conjuring an impression of its status as a time-honoured, timeless bastion of learning.
At the same time, there is an attitude of urgency towards the future of the NYPL, and by implication the future of the city and its residents. On the high demand for up-to-date maths textbooks in the face of a new curriculum, a librarian at a Bronx branch insists that ‘we cannot fail…the library cannot fail' in providing resources to children whose families ‘depend' on them to do well at school, in life.
One of the most crucial strands of discussion in the plan for posterity is the digitisation of the Library's archives and the persistent desire to know the future. What resources should be offered ‘ten years from now', CEO Anthony Marx asks, ‘on the off chance' that they might be needed? The NYPL's work in 2015 to keep up with modern life and integrate the digital into their collection, expanding the amount of people able to access their resources, has, in 2018, become unavoidably political, even ideological, as Wiseman noted in a recent interview with Indiewire. The Library is ‘probably the most democratic institution that exists because everybody's welcome' – a belief, he observes, that the current President of the United States does not appear to share, being more committed to an anti-immigration stance and a boundless aversion to knowledge.
Set against the challenges presented by American government and more local decisions, such as the Museum of Modern Art's new entry fee for non-New Yorkers, Wiseman's exaltation of the NYPL's gift of the freedom to work (and to be idle) now seems dyed with threat, but not certain doom: his subjects are so dedicated to the entwined causes of the Library, the city and the future that it's exhausting and thrilling just to watch them do it.
The next screening of Ex Libris at Bertha Doc House, 4th Feb 2018. Book tickets here.
Words by Charlotte Palmer
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