Saturday, December 16, 2017

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. A Review


Out of all the reviews Ex Libris: The New York Public Library may receive, I think mine will be the most unique.  The reason for that is that I am not only a certified film reviewer as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, but a certified Public Librarian at the El Paso Public Library.  Thus, I am familiar with this world.  Ex Libris goes into the inner workings of the New York Public Library (NYPL), both as to what it does for the public as well as what decisions the management and staff make to keep this relevant and important service going.  Be warned: it is an extremely long movie.  This is not a flawless film by any means, and length is something I will touch on later.

Using no narration/voice-over, Ex Libris shows both the public role and the behind-the-scenes activities of the NYPL, and not just the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the one with the lions, as a staffer refers to it when speaking to high school students).  We also hit various branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island (we learn that Brooklyn and Queens have their own library systems separate from the NYPL).  Among the locations we visit are the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the NYPL for the Performing Arts, as well as smaller branches that serve various parts of the city such as the Jerome Park Branch where elementary school students get help in their coursework.

The services that the NYPL provides go beyond being a 'warehouse for books'.  We see various book talks by authors (including Richard Dawkins and Elvis Costello), but concerts, job fairs, dance/exercise classes, services for the blind and disabled, book clubs, community meetings, poetry readings, archiving, and tutoring/after-school programs.  At the top of all those concerns, however, is on providing digital services to the public.  It's surprising that in New York City, there is a dearth of online connectivity at homes.  The NYPL is the only place where many can bridge that 'digital divide' free.  It even provides hot-spots for checkout to the public.

We learn also about the public-private partnerships that are at the core of the NYPL.

We also see the administration hold meetings where they discuss the future of the NYPL: how to increase private donations, where to spend money and resources, how to balance e-books with hardcovers.  Whenever we end a segment, we somehow manage to sneak back to the Schwarzman Building: in the daytime, at night, inside and outside.

Ex Libris, as I said, covers a world I'm familiar with, so part of my viewing enjoyment came from seeing my work site profiled.  I would notice things that the NYPL did differently from the EPPL (such as give out titles of material under a person's card over the phone, which they do and we don't).  I could also share similarities: hearing a staffer respond with how unicorns don't exist reminds me of those curious phone calls we answer.

Seeing the nuts and bolts of the Public Library system gives viewers a more rounded image of not only what work goes into keeping the library relevant in our society, but also into all that the library as a whole does for the community.  As both a love letter to this institution and an instructional display into the various activities that go into creating these outlets for political, social and cultural enrichment, Ex Libris does a strong job.

There are however, two elements in Ex Libris that I think should be addressed.  The first is length.  Ex Libris is three hours, seventeen minutes long.   This is an extremely punishing time for many viewers, who would feel maybe cutting away some of the book talks would benefit the film.  The second is identification.  There are no titles or names that appear to identify who is speaking.  At meetings, people may refer to an 'Iris', but have no idea who 'Iris' is or why we should give her views note.

I understand that not giving captions is the way director/producer/editor/sound director Frederick Wiseman does things.  I confess this is the first Wiseman documentary I have seen, so I am not familiar with his methodology.  It's all well that this is how he has always done it, but for the casual viewer, who has never seen a Frederick Wiseman documentary, let alone heard of Frederick Wiseman, it can be a bit disorienting.

Ex Libris: The New York Library is an excellent film detailing the importance of a library, applicable to any city.  The length and failure to note who is whom in it will be an issue to many viewers, but to others, this love letter to the importance of public libraries is as instructive and entertaining as anything within its hallowed halls.


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