It may be hard to imagine, but one of the liveliest films currently in theaters is a three-hour contemplation of the New York Public Library.
Ex Libris, the latest creation of master filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, opened this week at Film Forum, and it presents a fascinating exploration of both the library system and the vital role it plays in the life of the city. And as the filmmaker’s 41st documentary, it further cements his reputation as America’s greatest documentary filmmaker while adding to his growing body of work about the social fabric of New York City, which includes films like In Jackson Heights (2015), Central Park (1989), Welfare (1975), and Hospital (1969).
“The New York Public Library is one of the great libraries of the world, both from the point of view of its book collection and its archives, and its reach into the community,” says Wiseman, who met with Curbed for a conversation at the Film Forum. “But I only knew that theoretically—I’d never done any work in the New York Public Library and in fact, since I graduated college, I’d barely ever been in a library!”
For book lovers, Ex Libris is surely one of the most compelling documentaries ever made, with a stellar lineup of authors, academics, poets, and philosophers discussing their craft. Each year, the New York Public Library presents thousands of public programs, including exhibits, classes, and conversations with writers. A wide variety of these events are featured as part of the film, which begins with Richard Dawkins discussing Carl Sagan’s poetic approach to the cosmos and ends with Edmund de Waal celebrating the methods of his hero, Primo Levi.
Between these heady public conversations, the film presents a sweeping portrait of New York City, traveling across the boroughs to visit a dozen different library branches and investigating their day-to-day activities. The New York Public Library encompasses 92 different locations in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, including research centers and archives, and has over 51 million items in its collection. But as Ex Libris makes clear, it also serves as a de facto social space for a diverse array of New Yorkers, and an irreplaceable facilitator for the free exchange of knowledge.
“Whether it is helping 5-year-olds learn how to read, or 14-year-olds learn how to program, or recent Chinese immigrants learning English, or other immigrants learning how to use a computer, the library has vast roots in the various communities in New York,” says Wiseman, who visited 15 branches around the boroughs while filming. “It’s probably the most democratic of institutions, because everybody is welcome, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, economic position.”
Although Ex Libris is packed incredibly tightly with lectures and ideas, the film never feels overwhelmingly academic. At this stage of his career, Wiseman, who is 87 years old, is a masterful composer, and the film flows along like a great symphony of words and images, with overlapping themes punctuated by refreshing interludes. Even the briefest segments in its 197 minutes can pack an emotional wallop, like a visit to the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, or a 15-second sequence showing a gaunt library patron quietly searching for information on colorectal cancer.
Yet for all the branches it visits and all the author talks it documents, the film is just as much about the idea of the library and the philosophies that guide it as it is about the library’s physical reality.
“For a movie to work, it has to work at a variety of levels, both the literal and the abstract—the literal being what you see going on, and the abstract being what’s suggested by what you see and hear,” says Wiseman, who received an honorary Oscar in 2016. “Generally speaking, what I am trying to do is to show as many aspects of human behavior as I can.”
As with many of Wiseman’s greatest works, Ex Libris unfolds around several central themes, which in this case include the future of information in the digital age and the impact that equal access to knowledge could have on society. Surprisingly, though, one of the major themes that emerges in Ex Libris is the library’s work to illuminate the history and impact of slavery in the United States, and the effect that slavery has had on the literature and lives of modern African-Americans, with a special focus on the invaluable work being done by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Throughout the film, a series of scholars are shown explicating the history of the American slave trade, from Rudolph T. Ware discussing the enslavement of Senegalese clerics to Kwame Anthony Appiah presenting on the work of Phillis Wheatley, who became the first published African-American female poet while enslaved in Boston. Wiseman also visits Harlem’s tiny one-room Macomb's Bridge Library with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, documents poet Yusef Komunyakaa ruminating about James Baldwin and the blues, and films Ta-Nehisi Coates in a conversation about neighbor-on-neighbor crime and “the human condition.”
The resulting work, culled from dozens of hours of footage, is a documentary that is deeply literate, thrillingly timely, and thoroughly forward-looking, with contemporary references ranging from the digital divide to the murder of Michael Brown. As in his prior films, including his 2015 New York portrait In Jackson Heights, what Wiseman is really exploring is the ongoing evolution of the American democratic experiment, and it is difficult to think of another American filmmaker who has so consistently captured the zeitgeist.
“It may be a cliche to say it, but it seems to be true that the library is the great democratic institution,” says Wiseman, who has documented dozens of great, and not-so-great, institutions throughout his career, from the Idaho State Legislature to the Bridgewater Prison for the Criminally Insane. “There is nothing comparable. It is a true demonstration of the democratic idea. Or what democracy should represent.”
Much of Ex Libris is centered around the main branch of the New York Public Library, also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Located in Midtown Manhattan, above and adjacent to Bryant Park, this grand building opened in 1911.
The Schwarzman Building operates as the nerve center of the library system, and contains much of the library’s important collections. “It is second only to the Library of Congress as an archival library,” says Wiseman. “The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France are probably three of the greatest libraries in the world.”
Newly refurbished, the room’s murals and chandeliers are a reminder of the library’s wealthy origins, which emerged from the shared resources of the Astor and Lenox libraries, and the Tilden Trust, in 1895.
Some of the most interesting scenes in Ex Libris happen behind the scenes at the library, showing the nuts and bolts of its daily operations. Deep below Bryant Park, patrons’ requests are processed and sent upstairs via the “book train,” a new conveyor system that premiered in 2016.
Inside the Milstein Research Stacks, which were dedicated in 2016. This 55,600-square-foot storage space has a capacity for up to 4 million books, and is located two stories beneath Bryant Park, in the site of the old Croton Distributing Reservoir.
Transfers between the library’s various branches are now handled by the BookOps center in Queens, which is featured in Ex Libris. Opened in 2010, this facility sorts an average of 30,000 objects each day via a specially designed 238-foot-long belt sorter. They are then delivered throughout the NYPL and the Brooklyn Public Library systems.
The BookOps center is just one of the many ways that the library is using new technologies to make its collection more easily available to patrons. “The library is making a serious effort to keep up and maintain its standards,” notes Wiseman. “More people will have an opportunity to use it, for whatever use they want to put it to.”
Upstairs from BookOps, the library’s incoming archival materials are processed, and its older archival materials are digitized. Some of New York City’s most important artifacts have passed through this building’s various storage rooms and photo studios.
Lou Reed’s record collection waits to be processed into the library archives. Nearby, Sonny Rollins’ saxophone is also waiting to be added to the collection. “It only begins to suggest the range of material and experience that’s available to somebody who wants to use the library,” says Wiseman.
“The library is in a sense a collection of what man has reckoned, and what various generations have left of themselves,” says Wiseman, seen here during a visit to the historic Jefferson Market Branch in the West Village. “It contains everything. It contains the history of mankind.”
“So much of the activity at the library is in direct contrast to the current political scene,” notes Wiseman. “I finished editing the movie two days after Trump was elected, but the harshness, the Darwinian aspect, and the anti-intellectualism of his regime is in total contrast to what the library represents.”
Inside the tower of the Jefferson Market Branch, a former courthouse that dates back to 1877. “I’m not very good in predictions, but one hopes that we are extricated alive from the current scene,” says Wiseman, reflecting on the regime of today.
At the top of the Jefferson Market tower, an expansive view of the West Village. “I have great admiration for the New York Public Library, because the people who work there and the people who run it care, and they see it as their mission to help other people,” says Wiseman. “I think it’s just as important to make movies to reflect that, as it is to show people doing horrible and banal and cruel things.”
Over the past 50 years, Wiseman has documented numerous social institutions, from welfare offices to public housing, many of which are now facing a tenuous future. “They are all so fragile, and they are subject to systematic undermining,” says Wiseman. “Libraries are fragile, too. But I think a place like the New York Public Library, people will step up to support it. I hope.”
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.