By Tracy Wang
‘Ex Libris: New York Public Library’ is a successful attempt at capturing the multi-functions and significance of New York Public Library (NYPL) in supporting the growth of different communities. As a documentary film directed and written by Frederick Wiseman, it showcases NYPL’s importance in providing a variety of community services as well as its many ways of evolving and changing into an entity that is relevant to current American society.
The documentary film spans over 197 minutes, and it begins with basic scenes of people in New York using different services that NYPL offers. People using computers, people reading, and people inquiring about specific titles fill up the film. Meetings in which NYPL staff members discuss funding from city and private sectors, how or whether to include homeless people to enter, and what kinds of programs or services to increase or create, are interwoven with scenes in multiple library branches in New York City. Authors introducing their new books, kids learning about how to program robots, and musicians performing are all events happening at different branches. The film provides a close look inside the running of NYPL, as well as the great amount of activities and opportunities offered by it.
The film begins with a powerful start in which a poet discusses his ideas on truth; his statement on people’s ignorance being the most significant human flaw introduces us all to the amount of people, no matter their age, ethnicity, educational level, acquiring knowledge in libraries across the world, especially at NYPL. A series of scenes of people using NYPL’s spaces in a variety of ways follow, and we are brought directly into the meetings of NYPL’s important staff members. As we witness them voicing different opinions, and stress about the public and private partnership of NYPL, we seem to feel the pressure and urgency of getting funded as if we were part of the staffs.
Not only bringing us into staff meetings, we are also invited to NYPL’s many branches to understand what these libraries are providing and supporting. From job fairs where companies recruit employees, staffs teaching those who are visually impaired how to use fingers to read, to readers discussing passionately about a book in a book club meeting, we realize the fact that libraries are not just for reading, or using computer, or even having a space where people can sit quietly for a while; instead, it is a space in which people can learn new knowledge, build a friendly relationship with technology and books, and find ways to reduce the gap caused by inequality. It represents opportunity and a chance for people to be introduced to and feel safe in their passion for knowledge, skills and the world created by internet.
By putting the staff meetings alongside the multi-functions of NYPL, we are presented with a slice of the complexity and significance of a library. For many of us, it could be the first time in which we really understand the scope of what a library does for us and for society. ‘Ex Libris: New York Public Library’ certainly brings us to appreciate the physical space of a library, as well as comforts us with the knowledge that libraries around the world serve as stepping stones for people who are eager to learn, and for society that is eager to move forward with less ignorance and more kindness.