I was once posed with a hypothetical question. In the event of an emergency, where should your loved ones look for you? In this hypothetical, you’ve been separated, perhaps even moving from town to town. What one spot should someone looking for you go to at sun-up or sundown in the hopes of finding you.

My answer is simple: in the case of an emergency, look for me at the public library.

If a new piece of nonfiction is to be believed, I could choose far worse places to sit and wait.

EX-LIBRIS is director Frederick Wiseman’s look at a year in the life of The New York Public Library.

The film continually comes back to the main branch at Bryant Park, but through the course of the film, Wiseman takes us all over Manhattan and The Bronx to illuminate just what purpose NYPL serves and what goes on at its various locations.

In the main branch, we continually listen in as administrators grapple with how best to serve their patrons. At times, these meetings may seem a little dry, but several times over they shed some light on what the library system (and many like it the world over) want to be. Whether its moving from physical to digital media, or providing greater internet access from the staggering amount of Americans who still go without, we are flies on the wall to many discussions.

But the better experience is going system-wide and listening to guest speakers, teachers, poets, performers, and civic leaders as they use the spaces to engage with one-another. Programs big and small make full-use of the system’s resources, and truly demonstrate what institutions like NYPL are all about.

If that’s not treat enough, there are several times where we get to watch the day-to-day operations of the library system and see just how they do what they do. The peek at their central distribution where copies of all media are sorted and sent to the various branches is especially cool to see.

It’s like a Henry Ford assembly line…but for knowledge.




I use Toronto’s library system frequently (try to contain your surprise). I can’t help but feel, though, that I am in a dwindling part of the general population. In fact, when a co-worker offered to drive me a few blocks recently as we left our office at the same time, and I said “I’d love it if you could drop me at the library”, he responded “They still have those?”.

Yes, they still have those, and they do far more than the average citizen might suspect. This documentary has arrived to paint a more complete picture than the ones people like my (admiteedly very kind) co-worker have in their heads.

Most who approach EX-LIBRIS will feel intimidated by its length. This is a rational feeling. Three-hours-plus is a long time to spend with any subject, let alone a city service. However, besides the fact that the pace of the film is actually quite brisk for the runtime, the length allows the audience to truly connect to what goes on inside the branches of The New York Public Library. It provides us the chance to listen to people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Khalil Gibran Muhammad speak at-length. It allows us a chance to listen in on lectures, job fairs, community meetings, and so many other gatherings of engaged New Yorkers.

We seldom want to step away from these discussions – including discussions of how the institution is funded and operated. So if we want to sit at these tables, and notice that the tables sometimes get too big for their rooms, we need to build ourselves a bigger room.

What’s inside of that room is fascinating.

To hear Dutch architect Francine Houben explain it, the perception is that these rooms…these buildings…these institutions…they are store houses for books. What she describes – and what we see – couldn’t be further from the truth. Our libraries are so much more than row after row of bookshelves. They are our community centres, our performances spaces, our classrooms, our social networks, our pulpits, our museums, and our archives.

They are universities where the tuition is free. They are our concert halls where no jacket is required. Oh, and they still have books too if that’s what you’re into. Some even live in computers now!

More than anything, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary is about the faces that come-and-go through these public spaces. Some are pensive, some are vacant. Some are deeply plugged-in with what is happening around them, and some are clearly don’t want to be there. These faces are from all walks of life, all classes, all levels of education. Some are well-heeled, some are homeless. Some are studiously working on thoughtful projects, some are taking selfies.

The point is that more than any other civic institution, the library system serves them all. It offers more than most people suspect in an increasingly digital age, and sometimes it just offers itself up as sanctuary for those in-need.

My viewing of EX LIBRIS couldn’t be better-timed. A week and a half ago, I actually took time out from my New York City vacation to visit the New York Public Library and soak up a few pages in the Rose Main Reading Room. Beyond being bibliophile nirvana, the space was something truly rare in midtown Manhattan; it was quiet.

The quiet bordered on pure silence, creating an environment where gentle elevator chimes tolled like Big Ben, and shifting chairs were like thunder claps. It is a space where those who gather are not being sold anything, and instead are allowed to partake in the genuine purpose these institutions serve.

Our public libraries are a place to turn off the needless noise of the outside world and truly listen. We can listen to our own thoughts, listen to sage voices from past generations, and – most importantly – listen to each-other.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on EX-LIBRIS.