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Frederick Wiseman's "Ex Libris", A Cinematic Ode to the New York Public Library

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on November 2, 2017

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87-year-old documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has been making films for 50 years. His latest, Ex Libris, The New York Public Library, is an ode to the US' largest public library system, an institution intent on keeping up with society, serving society, and upholding, as Toni Morrison has said, a pillar "of our democracy."

During his career Wiseman has concentrated on geographical areas or institutions; a psychiatric prison, a hospital, the Opera in Paris, or London's National Gallery. In Ex Libris, as in his other documentaries, the camera follows people as they go about their daily life, whether employees of the New York Public Library system or patrons. They are not asked questions, there are no voiceovers, they speak for themselves. 

“A unicorn is actually an imaginary animal,” a librarian working the helpline gently tells a caller. 

The New York Public Library with its 92 branches is a complex place run by a dedicated staff, and supported by both public funds and private donations. Wiseman shows how this library system has become an educational and cultural center as well. Ultimately, Ex Libris is about how people come together in libraries and how democracy exists within the institution. It also shows a welcome side to the United States during the Trump era. Indeed, in a recent interview Wiseman said that his film had unintentionally become political, as it reveals an aspect of the US in which people are concerned with public institutions and democracy. While he films a star-studded cast of authors including Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elvis Costello, and Edmund de Waal, who are hosted at events at the iconic Fifth Avenue and Forty Second Street branch, local patrons discussing in a branch in Harlem how the library changed their lives are just as important. Wiseman's ode to the New York Public Library is a lovely moment about an institution that brings out the best in people. 

In the carousel below you can find a selection of books in which libraries or librarians play central roles. 

Banner photo David Iliff/the Rose Main Reading Room 


Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.

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