A Librarian's Response to Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris

Submitted by Heather Saunders on

The Cleveland premiere of Ex Libris (2017) by veteran documentary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, took place this past week-end at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque.


In 2015, Wiseman filmed 12 of 92 locations of the New York Public Library, the country’s largest public library system. In the film, Francine Houben, one of the architects for the mid-Manhattan branch states, “A library must reflect what’s important in that city.” Evidently, many things are important to New Yorkers: over the course of 197 minutes, Wiseman captures such diverse programming as child/caregiver sing-alongs, homework clubs, job fairs, author interviews, interpretive theater using sign language, and black tie affairs. Right out of the gate, the library is presented as a going concern, by headset-wearing reference staff handling an array of questions; each is addressed patiently, even the query about unicorns that assumes the mythical beasts are real.


The film’s title evokes another era, when Latin was part of the curriculum, if not the vernacular. The audience is treated to traces of history, like shots of archival papers and prints from the 1300s onward. There’s also documentation of a Gutenberg Bible from c. 1455, which links the past to the present by virtue of its modern method of production (movable type). And, there are juxtapositions of new and old, such as a patron using a cellphone to reproduce content from a hefty tome. At the same time, the inclusion of people enjoying beverages within study spaces, taking selfies in front of the stunning Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and browsing in its gift shop indicate that the model of the library has changed. The concept of the library as space is key; it has been embraced as a venue for recreation as well as edification. Still, scholarship is alive and well; endearingly, one patron uses the exclamation point to emphasize excitement in his notes from the William S. Burroughs papers.


Also very much alive is the socialist aspect of libraries. Everyone has a place in the library, underscored by multilingual materials, a vision impaired person learning to read in Braille, and a patron with a mobility device selecting books from a shelf. One heartwarming scene involves a staff member striving to find as many alternative options as possible for a young person of color who doesn’t have identification handy to acquire a library card. Race is a frequent theme of discussion, from slavery to neighbor-on-neighbor violence. Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, then Director of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, speaks about the library’s important role in providing a comprehensive, accurate history of the African American experience. He also commends libraries for their “life-saving work.” In another scene, supporting homeless people is a topic of discussion at an administrative meeting. Just as a range of patrons use the library, a range of people are responsible for its operations. Wiseman reminds the audience of this fact by including footage of security guards and special events staff in addition to featuring library administrators, librarians, and paraprofessionals.


Anyone who is unclear about the organizational structure of libraries shouldn’t expect greater clarity after watching Ex Libris. Note that in the paragraph above, in the anecdote about acquiring a library card, the vague phrasing of staff member is used. That’s because people’s titles and names are not included on the screen, although on occasion, they may be mentioned in conversation. Perhaps this flattens the hierarchy, by suggesting that everyone upholds the library’s mission and is equally important, but it’s problematic. Firstly, it raises questions (for example, what are the roles of the personnel who contribute more heavily in administrative meetings?). Secondly, it leads critics to write without specificity, attributing quotes merely to someone. The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman offers the solution of Googling to identify speakers. Here’s how this process unfolded for me: I Googled a quotation from the film (“If you tell that richer story, you see the connections”) to see if any critics had already identified the speaker. That wasn’t the case, so I checked Google Images for ‘New York Public Library administrators’ and only in the 37th row of images was I able to match Luke Swarthout, Director of Policy, NYPL Digital with my notes containing six descriptors of his visage. Frankly, I’m not keen on having unnecessary rabbit holes created for researchers. I echo the perspective of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane that the individuals who are featured deserve to be identified. I feel that failing to identify individuals devalues their work, and in this profession, we are already required to demonstrate our value at every turn. Taking this issue outside of the library world, given that Wiseman works in the arts, shouldn’t he want to give full exposure to other creatives? I would love to know, for instance, the name of the African American man whose spoken word performance prompted applause at the CIA’s screening.


The other aspect that is unsettling about the film from the perspective of a librarian is that along with identifiable shots of patrons, the audience frequently sees the research queries or the nature of use of a resource (such as playing video games or doing online shopping). Observing research conducted for legal or health reasons makes me feel like an interloper. Although an onsite patron might catch a glimpse of someone else’s activities, this type of documentation seems to run counter to libraries’ safeguarding of privacy, even if the individuals presumably granted permission to be filmed.


I would be remiss if I didn’t note that art is highlighted in Ex Libris. There’s panning of the exhibitions, Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography and Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination, as well as a brief discussion of Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros print, shown above. Also, if you’re familiar with Taryn Simon’s series, The Picture Collection (2012), then you know about the NYPL’s extensive, circulating picture file collection that was started in 1915. A staff member notes excitedly that the collection was used by artists like Diego Rivera, Joseph Cornell, and Andy Warhol (who kept some materials permanently).


With a montage, it’s inevitable to search for meaning. For example, I found myself wondering, is the shot of a psychic’s business meant to juxtapose the reliability of information found in libraries or is it merely to situate the library branch about to be featured? If it’s the latter, would a tighter shot not suffice? Meaning is also sought in the opposite situation, when related content appears throughout the film but not in close proximity; in these situations, the viewer must work hard to form connections across the vast amount of footage. Critics seem generous in implying that these associations are intentional. The absence of narration and the absence of a story arc combined with scenes flipping back and forth between branches and similar scenes repeating (like cutting to a long hallway in the main branch with a lone security guard) make the montage feel conceptually dizzying. Even so, no one who watches this film can claim that libraries are boring.