‘Ex Libris’: Award-Winning Film Takes a Fresh Look at the New York Public Library

in Nonfiction by

As the world is swept into the digital age, the library, too, is swept along with it. From award-winning filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, his new documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library examines how the famous library, and its ninety-two branches, are facing the era of all-things technological.

Gone are the days of the obligatory shots of the overcrowded bookshelves, the reading tables in the middle of the room, and the librarians at the front desk observing the patrons with suspicion. While the subject of Ex Libris may be The New York Public Library, there are rarely any books to be seen. Patrons line up at the front desk, but instead of checking out books, they’re handed a tablet streaming device by the librarian. Shots of visitors to the library include them sitting at a reading table, staring at the screens in front of them. While many of us view scenes like this with more than a bit of nostalgia for the age of the hardcover book, it is, as Wiseman shows us, not nearly that simple, or that tragic.

Filmmaker Wiseman at the New York Public Library. Courtesy of Curbed New York.

Rather than lamenting the loss of the traditional library format, Wiseman shows us what the New York Public Library, and its system has turned into: cultural, community centers, with a focus on knowledge, learning, education, and communication. Lectures open to the public have become common place, as have some classes for all ages, as well; friends meet and gather to talk; and the resources of the library have become more communal and public, and not without their moments of humor – in one shot, an employee had to explain very kindly over the phone that unicorns are not, in fact, real animals.

Frederick Wiseman has made some of the most innovative and comprehensive documentaries in the world, examining everything from medical experiments to night clubs. But each documentary carries his unique signature, where, instead of telling the audience what they should think about what they’re seeing, he allows the audience to form their own opinions based on their own values. In this regard, Ex Libris is no different. Three and a half hours long, the documentary looks at where the library has been, where it is now, and where it’s going, featuring not just the library workers and patrons, but a host of celebrities like Elvis Costello, Richard Dawkins and Patti Smith, and ultimately, the biggest star of them all: the New York Public Library.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is showing in select theaters now. For more information, please visit the film’s featured website. For more information on Frederick Wiseman, please visit the website zipporah.com/wiseman.


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Rachel Fogle De Souza was born and raised in Connecticut, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States, before attending college at the University of California, Davis, where she received a B.A. in Comparative Literature, with a double minor in Women, Gender and Sexualities studies, and Middle Eastern/South Asian studies. When she's not writing, she's reading, boxing, or thinking about traveling.

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