By Dan Clendenin
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)
This 2017 documentary film by Frederick Wiseman (his 44th film) was on many “best of the year” lists for its understated celebration of one of the greatest knowledge centers in the world. The NYPL, which has 53 million items in 92 branches in several boroughs, is funded by both the city of New York and private philanthropy. The main, iconic branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street (“the one with the lions out front”) was opened in 1911. Although the 88-year-old Wiseman doesn’t like the term, others have called his style “observational cinema,” where nothing is staged or even explained. There are no voice overs, no descriptive narrative, or even any subtitles that would tell you that you are watching Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Richard Dawkins, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Rather, like the proverbial fly on the wall, he just lets his camera linger for 3:24 hours (!), showing what happens at the library, and it’s way more than checking out books from the Dewey Decimal System. In Ex Libris we see job fairs, piano concerts, public lectures like “Books at Noon,” a talk about housing for people with disabilities, book club discussions, academic tutoring for kids, free internet access and computer literacy classes for those who would otherwise remain in the digital dark, Braille lessons, senior citizen dance classes, outreach to the deaf, the homeless finding a place of safety and quiet, staff people answering questions on the phone, and the board of directors discussing its mission and how to fund it. I watched this film on the PBS website.
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