Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, goes behind the scenes of one of the greatest knowledge institutions in the world and reveals it as a place of welcome, cultural exchange and learning. With 92 branches throughout Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, the library is committed to being a resource for all the inhabitants of this multifaceted and cosmopolitan city, and beyond.


“De openbare bibliotheek van New York is een instituut met vele gezichten. [...] Wiseman trekt de kijker mee in zijn ruim drie uur durende verkenning van alle activiteiten en toont daarnaast hoe het beleid gevormd wordt. Openbare interviews met onder anderen Patti Smith en Richard Dawkins zijn in Wisemans nieuwsgierige ogen even belangwekkend als een vergadering over omgaan met daklozen.”



“Since the late 1960s, Frederick Wiseman has been making movies at the pace of roughly one per year – all the more astonishing since he typically shoots over a hundred hours to yield anywhere from ninety minutes in the final cut to six hours, sometimes spending more than a year in the editing room. “The shooting is the research” he has said. He begins with no a priori story point of view, but he disavows the term “cinema vérité” which he considers both specious and pretentious. He prefers “reality fiction” – a term that registers how much is shaped by the choices of what to shoot and how to put together what remains after the radical cutting. He uses no narrator, yes his aim is not to be objective but to be, to use the word he prefers, fair. In all these respects he has managed for more than forty years to be consistent without being redundant.”

Andrew Delbanco2


Ex Libris: The New York Public Library has the drive of a vociferous reader checking out and renewing the maximum number of books their card will allow. Its running time of three hours and seventeen minutes is generous enough to succeed on multiple levels. The most prominent theme is the divide between rich and poor, and what the NYPL means in different neighbourhoods. The gorgeous main branch on Fifth Avenue with its marble lions serves a different function than the outposts in the economically disadvantaged outer boroughs. On Fifth Avenue, a “Books at noon” guest like Richard Dawkins will wax about the Enlightenment; off Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, the community huddles up for job interview tips.”

Jordan Hoffman3


“If I made a film following the president of the NYPL, it wouldn’t be a film about the library. He would become the subject of the film. I’m not saying that you can’t make an interesting film focused on him. This is not the film I chose to make. My films are mosaics, the result of thousands of choices designed to giving an impression of the day-to-day activities of the place. That is the subject of the film. The final film is impressionistic, never definitive or comprehensive.”

Frederick Wiseman4


“Wiseman never uses narration, explanatory titles, music, or commentary of any sort. He is stubbornly unhelpful; he will not shape, in any easy way, our responses to his films. Instead, out of the many hours of film that Wiseman shoots in any given institution, he creates an elaborately patterned mosaic of scenes that suggest not only the life of the hospital, police force, housing complex, school or boxing gym that is his subject, but also his own complicated response to it. As he would be the first to admit (on this subject he is eloquent), his response is always subjective. I cannot be anything else. A filmmaker is not omniscient, and he exercises taste and judgment every time he focuses on one matter rather than another. The final edited version of the footage is a representation of what he has experienced, observed, and felt. The choice and arrangement is always subjective.”

David Denby5


“The NYPL is not only a place where one goes to look for books or consult archives, it is a key institution for the city’s inhabitants and citizens, and particularly in poor and immigrant neighborhoods where the library is more than a passive place where people take out books. The branches have become community and cultural centers where a wide variety of educational activities take place for adults and children. The staff of the library works to help others through language and computer courses, seminars in literature and history or how to establish a business as well as supplementing the school program with after school courses for children and adolescents. There are literally hundreds of educational programs for people of all ages and social classes. The film suggests the wide spectrum of opportunity offered by the library. The NYPL embodies the profoundly democratic idea of being open to everyone. All classes, races and ethnicities are connected to the library. For me, the New York Public Library is an illustration of democracy in action. And represents the best of America. For these reasons saying that libraries are “pillars of democracy” doesn’t seem excessive."

Frederick Wiseman6


“Some people think that documentaries always have to be about terrible things — exposing things dealing with cruelty and injustice. I've made my share of films like that, or at least in part like that, never totally like that. But I think it's just as important to show people doing good, kind, and generous things as it is to show them doing banal, cruel, and horrible things. Sometimes you get both in the same film.”

Frederick Wiseman7

UPDATED ON 02.10.2019