For his 42nd mega-documentary, Frederick Wiseman follows up his 190-minute, New York neighborhood-specific In Jackson Heights with the 197-minute Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Bouncing around many of the NYPL’s 92 locations, it looks at issues all libraries face, whether their ZIP code is 10018 or 94080. Ex Libris examines the role of the library in the modern world purely through observations of daily business, with no interviews or talking heads, no on-screen text other than signs, and no narration. Much of the exposition is delivered in the form of public programs — hi, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Patti Smith! — especially the behind-the-scene meetings, but again, never to the camera or with the acknowledgment that they’re being filmed by a legendary documentarian.
One of the battles seen waged is against the continued and quite reductive perception that a library is just a place where books are kept. While that was never strictly true, the struggle now is to rebuild and rebrand them as places for people who want all kinds of knowledge, and for promoting digital literacy as technology keeps zooming forward. That said, books are still present throughout, including lots of tasty archiving porn in the Picture Collection and especially the Berg Collection. Like libraries themselves, Ex Libris has something for everyone.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater.