Interview: Daniel Kasman | Video: Kurt Walker
America's greatest living filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, returns to the city of New York after the Queens borough collage In Jackson Heights (2015) with another opus that looks at a dense, living ecosystem, seeing it as a embodiment of an American ideal and struggle. Where the great documentarian’s 2015 picture surveyed the melting pot of the Jackson Heights neighborhood, finding within an exemplary diversity of race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation, all inextricably intertwined with threats of gentrification, discrimination, and commercialization, Wiseman’s new work, Ex Libris, explores New York’s public library system to find a complex, contradictory model for democratic thought.
“A library is not about books—that’s what a lot of people think, that it’s a storage place for books,” says Francine Houben, the creative director of the firm chosen to re-envision and remodel New York’s iconic, lion-guarded Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. “It is about people,” she corrects, and a place for them to gather knowledge. This could serve as a guiding theme for Wiseman’s characterization of the library system—which ambitiously spans three of New York’s five boroughs, serving Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island—that is variously a research archive, a circulating library, and, perhaps above all, a community hub. “Access to information combats inequality,” a staff member says early inEx Libris, and Wiseman showcases how the hub of each branch in the greater urban constellation of the library system provides patrons with access to the knowledge within (the permanent collection, the floating books, reference librarians) and knowledge without, providing Internet access to a city one quarter of whose population, according to a 2014 study, does not have access at home.
At the same time, various branches—including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem—provide various talks, discussions and performances which give the institution essential pedagogic and cultural functions. Wiseman selects these very carefully indeed, many a comment on the filmmaker’s own practice that is so deeply reflective about the makeup and functioning of his country: Elvis Costello remarks on political anger in his art over time; Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses how black oppression is a statement on the human condition; Patti Smith welcomes digressions in her favorite memoirs; and artist Edmund de Waal, who works in porcelain, remarks that “the manner of what we make defines us.” Lectures and classrooms cover topics ranging from the origins of anti-slave trade movement in Africa and the various overlap and divergence of attitudes towards slavery between Marx and Southern ideologues, to the evolution of Jewish delicatessens in New York and erroneous school history books. It’s not just that the NYPL teaches, Ex Libris asserts, it is that it teaches where America came from and how it got to be what it is today. More practically, how to simply subsist in the city is also showcased as an institutional goal, as we see job fairs—with local business owners and a fireman passionately extolling their vocations, while a Homeland Security officer flatly reads from a patriotic script—and workshops on how to navigate New York City with a disability, as well as how knowledge and experience are transmitted to the blind and to the deaf.
This being a film by Frederick Wiseman, the front-facing side of the library is not the only one shown, and we get a fair dose of administrative meetings that turn over just what the value of a library is, especially in a digital age. In one wry sequence, the film offers a montage of the extensive print archives of over 100 years of city newspapers, while in the quiet of the background we hear the nearby sounds of cellphones receiving texts and incoming emails. Patrons variously use the computers to find local churches or to shop online, while a scholar plunges into the book archives to research Yeats. “We’ve always had to prove we’re relevant,” remarks one librarian. Where the system’s limited resources should go is another point of debate—digitization? Ebooks vs. physical books? Improving the research collection?—as indeed is where these resources come from. Houben points out that in her native Holland the government fully pays for the libraries, seeing it as an investment in its citizenship. In New York, the library struggles to get both private investment and funds from the city, forever tying the development of education and community to budget and publicity concerns.
Shot in 2015 but edited through the 2016 election, Ex Libris comes at a desperate time for advocates of knowledge, teaching, literacy, historical analysis and positive community building—the very things for which Wiseman suggests the New York Public Library is a bastion. In 2015, as we can very well see by the sometimes shabby interiors, strained arguments, often underpopulated events, and understaffed facilities, this redoubt was already under siege, perhaps most of all by those who think the mere existence of digital technology renders what a library is—as an idea, as a repository of knowledge, as gathering of tools and experts for public use, and as a physical space—a thing of the past. What Ex Libris so brilliantly does is sketch the entirety of a system that has been built—and is evolving—to improve the future.