EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY a film by Frederick Wiseman (USA, 2017)ex_libris_e28093_the_new_york_public_library

Zadie Smith expressed it well when in ‘North-west London Blues, when she wrote that: “Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy something to stay”.

Appropriately enough, this essay was published in the New York Review of Books for what applies to the London suburbs applies equally to the bustling metropolis of NYC.

This is more than clear from Frederick Wiseman’s painstakingly epic documentary film which presents many of the Big Apple’s library branches and buildings as beacons of anti-capitalist hope. Although not overtly political, it’s hard to miss the fact that these resources represent the polar opposite of everything Trump and his minions stand for.

As with so many documentaries these days, there’s no commentary to go with the images that derive from 12 weeks of filming. There’s no obvious narrative thrust even though Wiseman says he tries to work the footage into a story.

Frankly, it’s hard to find too many good reasons to justify why the final cut should be so damn long. Three hours and 17 minutes requires an awful lot as patience as we eavesdrop on a series of talks, events. lectures and interminable policy meetings most of which would have benefited from some further editing.

What the film does show, albeit in laborious detail, is that modern libraries are so much more than a repository for books. We’re quite a way into the film before we see any significant book-shelving and one of the most revealing discussions about the lending service focuses on the trend towards e-books as print editions and archives are increasing available in a digital format.

Above all, Wiseman’s film shows how this modern-day library is evolving to offer an invaluable centre for the dissemination and discussion of information. The fact that this education service is free on demand means that you can understand why Republicans and other philistines would want to curtail its growth and influence.

An informed public means people are less likely to blindly follow what politicians and decision-makers decide on their behalf. Keeping citizens ignorant makes them easier to manage and manipulate. As Brother Mouzone in The Wire sagely observed, the most dangerous thing in America these days is “a nigger with a library card”.

Link: New York Times film review