Over the last decade, Frederick Wiseman’s films have started to take on a new magisterial scope and sweep, frequently running over three hours as he condenses a life’s work documenting America’s public sphere to some of the most comprehensive and detailed works of his career to date. In Ex Libris, his subject is the New York Public Library, whose staggering sprawl here encompasses the Main Branch in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue, the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, the George Bruce Library on 125th Street, the Jefferson Market Library, the Macombs Bridge Library in the Harlem River Houses, the Bronx Library Center, Jerome Park Library, Kingsbridge Library, Parkchester Library, Westchester Square Library, the Picture Collection and the Book Ops Center, where returns, repairs and rehabilitation of older titles occur. Although it runs at 197 minutes, Ex Libris doesn’t feel long, since Wiseman is now a master at immersing his audience in his subject matter, moving from scene to scene with a rhythm and narrative pace that leaves you wanting even more when the credits finally roll.
From the outset, it’s clear that Ex Libris is keen to present the NYPL as the “quintessential public-private partnership” in the United States, and one of the most emphatic affirmations of public space, and the public sphere, in the United States. Time and again, library workers refer to the importance of building a “welcoming, generous spirit,” while one of the board members insists that “access to education” is the “fundamental solution, over time, to inequality.” Accordingly, the NYPL is presented here as a point of public access above all else, providing New Yorkers with academic discourse, employment opportunities, historical archives, local community, affordable housing, musical performances, fitness groups, art exhibitions and, of course, supplements to public education itself. It quickly becomes clear that this library isn’t defined in terms of physical book storage, but in terms of these moments of access to knowledge, which remind us that “intellectual and academic and literary” discourse “does not have to be highbrow, it does not have to be elitist,” in the words of a slam poet who gives a performance at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts branch.
Those discussions around access often centre on digital access, and the role of the NYPL as an “anchor institution” in the community for both digital access and digital inclusion. Those lead on, in turn, to debates around what digital inclusion means, above and beyond allocating a certain amount of bandwidth to each user. Given that three million New Yorkers, and over sixty million Americans, don’t have reliable internet connectivity, remedying the “digital divide,” or “digital dark” becomes a critical mission statement of the NYPL, culminating with an initiative to lend out digital hotspots that is entering a trial phase as the film is being shot. More broadly, however, the debates about digital inclusion are part of a bigger push towards equity of communication and access to information, as evinced in one amazing sequence at Lincoln Center in which a stage translator for the deaf demonstrates how different sign language can be depending upon the affect and expression of the actors on stage. Throughout all these discussions, debates and demonstrations, the library’s continually comes back to Andrew Carnegie’s vision of a NYPL branch within eight minutes walk of every New Yorker, and how to revise and remediate it for a digital ecology. That’s not to say, however, that the literal basis of Carnegie’s plan is neglected either, since, as Wiseman paints it, the NYPL is as much an affirmation of pedestrian space as of public space, part of the same civic impulse that produced the Million Trees NYC initiative, leading to some quite involved discussions about the library’s relation to the homeless people who use it for shelter, and the role of public institutions in providing support for the homeless.
While the NYPL is in the process of digitising, then, it’s clear that the actual spaces and structures of the library are just as important as the information they contain. In part, that’s simply because they still store an enormous amount of information that eludes regular internet access, and that hasn’t been digitised in any comprehensive way, producing a repository of arcane knowledge that often reminded me of Wikipedia’s aesthetic proclivity for articles that encapsulate global trends and local minutiae in a single subject. Many of these subjects preoccupy the amateur researchers who spend their days at the library, as well as the people who come to witness the lectures and addresses that recur throughout the film, at a variety of venues and branches. Throughout these sequences, Wiseman beautifully showcases his inimitable capacity to capture what makes people interesting, but also what makes them interested in either other as well. His camera follows suit, refraining from being too involved, or too detached, to instead situate itself as an interested, keenly observant participant. In an era in which there are so many efforts to encapsulate the state of America, there’s a sublime directness to the way in which Wiseman’s lens computes the diversity of Americans and their access to resources – a directness that comes from his willingness to watch and listen, and his celebration of the NYPL as a space within which watching and listening are still regarded as a bedrock of American civic and social discourse.
While the film does have a fairly sustained critique of racism, then, Wiseman never presumes to be its spokesman, simply situating his camera so as to draw out the manifold ways in which the NYPL provides a public sphere, a public space and a point of public access that is still denied to blackness within the wider American landscape. From the final board meeting, which involves a presentation on the library’s holdings on Phyllis Wheatley, to an extraordinary address by Te-Nehisi Coates on neighborhood-on-neighborhood crime, to a pair of stunning addresses on the academic discourses around slavery, to an impassioned reading from Yusef Komunyakaa, Wiseman minoritises his own address in a way few white directors can, allowing the black experience of the NYPL to speak through his film while never claiming to speak for it. That culminates with the final sequence, which takes place at the Macombs Bridge branch in the Harlem River Houses – the smallest branch of the NYPL, to be sure, but also “the jewel in the crown” of the entire library system, as one of its librarians playfully attests. Here, we’re presented with a neighbourhood meeting, as well as an affirmation of the library itself as a purveyor of neighborhood in a rapidly gentrifying Harlem, where it substitutes for all those civic institutions – especially tertiary and ongoing education opportunities – that are so often systematically arrayed against black folk. In that gesture, the Macomb’s Bridge branch, and the NYPL as a whole, is offered as a critical locus for black activism, culminating with an injunction to the audience to write in and complain about the depiction of slavery in Department of Education endorsed history textbooks distributed by McGraw Hill, which present it as simply another version of immigrant labour.
In fact, slavery, in general, runs deep throughout Ex Libris, as the NYPL becomes a site within which knowledge of slavery as a structuring principle of American society is still permitted, as opposed to the disavowal of its scale and scope that is virtually necessary for American politics to continue without a radical reconceptualisation of its history and legacy. Time and again, the legacy of slavery crops up in library discussions and presentations, but always from an oblique, awry or novel angle, as something so central and integral to the American experience that it can never be looked at head on. During the demonstration of sign translation at Lincoln Center, the text that is chosen is an excised component of the Declaration of Independence within which Thomas Jefferson expressed his distaste for slaves in terms that were considered unacceptably polemical to the other founding fathers. The status of that document, excised from history, but now revived and remediated through a pair of sign language translations – one angry, one pleading – speaks to the inchoate yet pervasive role that slavery plays within the discourse of the NYPL as a whole. As the film proceeds, it thus gradually becomes clear that the NYPL is unique, within America public and civi life, as being one of the places in which the ongoing desecration of blackness in the United States can be sufficiently comprehended to start ensuring that social conditions don’t reproduce themselves, as one of the librarians puts it at the Macombs Bridge Branch.
The very nature of that insight, however, stems from the obliqueness with which the NYPL permits its users to approach the issue of slavery, rather than having to contain it – through either denial or performative apology – in the ways so endemic to mainstream policies. It’s fitting, then, that the film never quite presents slavery as its focus, situating it within a wider swathe of experiences and encounters that contour it with a variety of memorable and fascinating insights into the library. Among them are a series of lectures by Patti Smith, Richard Dawkins and Elvis Costello, a disquisition on the cultural role of the delicatessen in Jewish American culture, a reading group on Love in the Time of Cholera, and a series of political addresses that nearly always relate, in some way, to Marxist thought. Seeing everyday Americans responding to Marxism in a matter-of-fact and interested way is one of the revelations of the film, and of Wiseman’s body of work, and that’s condensed here to a vision of Marxist discourse itself as just this matter-of-fact and attentive engagement with the present moment in all its material complexity and compromise. In Wiseman’s hands, no one person claims Marxist authority, or uses Marxism as a source of authority, but instead mobilises it for a collective discourse, and a collective momentum, into which the film is eventually subsumed, ending with a fade-out that doesn’t feel like an ending, or a break, but an invitation to the audience to join the “generous spirit” that that underpins the NYPL.