If I had to sum up a 197-minute documentary about public libraries in one word, that word would be “excitement.”
All through Frederick Wiseman’s documentary “Ex Libris: New York Public Library,” we meet people who are seriously pumped about being at the library, whether they’re sharing their knowledge with others or receiving it.
The legendary 87-year-old Wiseman, as he has in films like “At Berkeley,” “La Danse” and “Crazy Horse,” does a deep dive into an institution, showing us every facet, from its inner workings to its public face. It’s a rare film that gathers momentum and power as it goes on, coalescing into a mosaic that illustrates how essential the library is to public life, especially in the information economy.
“Ex Libris” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free.
A 197-minute film is a long sit, but think of it as a series of short, seamlessly edited vignettes all centering on the New York Public Library. We spend a few minutes watching Elvis Costello and author Ta-Nehisi Coates onstage at one of the library’s public lectures. Then we go behind the scenes of a board meeting, where officials grapple with the need for adequate funding and the digitizing of its massive collection, which one one board member calls the “Holy Grail of the 21st Century.”
We tag along as an enthusiastic volunteer shows off the library’s picture archive to a group of high school drama students, and an employee on the help desk answers questions about unicorns. Then we head out to one of the library’s far-flung branches in the Bronx, where the library meeting room becomes a vital community gathering spot.
And, of course, we linger quietly as people read, and do research, and surf the internet. The library’s patrons are a cross-section of the city, and of America, with college students sitting next to homeless people. The film makes an eloquent argument for the library as a vital resource for all, doing its best to ensure that even the poorest residents have access to information, whether they’re looking for a job or keeping up with public events. Or just learning some stuff about unicorns.
“Ex Libris” has more humor and energy than many other Wiseman films. I laughed out loud at the author who was positively giddy in telling an audience about New York Jewish deli culture, and the prim book club member who was turned off by all the sex scenes in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.” (“They should have called it ‘Lovemaking in the Time of Cholera.’”)
I don’t know if the UW-Cinematheque, which is showing “Ex Libris” as part of a retrospective series of Wiseman films, planned to have the “Ex Libris” screening coincide with this week’s Wisconsin Book Festival. But it’s fortuitous timing, because you walk out of the film positively stoked to go support your local library and all the great things it does.