The Intelligence of the Public Library

“Ex Libris,” a film by Frederick Wiseman in competition at the Venice Film Festival last month, takes a look at the New York Public Library in forensic detail. Far from the image of a place purely for the holding and loaning of books, this temple of knowledge breaks its boundaries to become a citizen’s experience, to share in.

We’re accustomed to lamenting the intellectual and political poverty of Americans. Indeed, after the illusions of the Obama era that appeared, then as quickly vanished, Donald Trump has not rested, through a reasoning as pernicious as it is obstinate, from underlining the idea that this “great nation” is truly without hope. Yet here we have Frederick Wiseman, with “Ex Libris,” an astonishing film (premiered at the Venice Film Festival), as much for its content as for its form, which brushes aside this cynical view with a stimulating investigation into the missions, methods and results of an exceptional institution: the New York Public Library .

No ‘Entertainment’ Here

Such a film could appear at once vain and tedious. Indeed, how could anyone stay interested in a subject this dry for three hours or more? Particularly if one is aware the filmmaker has made no sacrifices to the altar of ease, used no diverting digressions (entertainment gimmick right here!) and doesn’t at any point attempt to pander to the emotions or clear conscience of the audience? On the contrary, he strings together long, spontaneous sequences which, little by little, paint an accurate and complex picture of the institution that is the NYPL; of its decentralized operation, its accelerated development, its continuous calling into question and, ultimately, its important role at the heart of the New York metropolis. Patiently, in a quasi-pointillist style, he offers the audience a model without parallel, inspiring dreams of possible expansion beyond its customary realm of historical and geographical experimentation.

Huge Variety of Services

Far from the old idea of libraries being places that are strictly for the storage and circulation of books, Wiseman takes us by the hand to assess the current boundary-pushing of this temple of knowledge; boundaries which are no longer fixed. “I’ve been surprised to discover the huge variety of services, opportunities and experiences libraries offer to those who come through the doors. Today’s libraries have become community centers, offering after-school programs for children as well as courses for adults in languages, citizenship, management and computer programming. Forgetting the current political climate in America for a moment, the library remains an ideal of inclusion, democracy and freedom of expression.”

Challenge of the Digital Divide

As private meetings and public presentations come and go for the NYPL’s management team, it underlines the extraordinary commitment, energy and vision on display, as they strive, whatever the budgetary or partnership constraints, to always push the boundaries of quality and possibility on behalf of the existing beneficiaries and the future of the “library system.” The film pays particular attention to the challenge of the digital divide, for which imaginative solutions are already being implemented; but also to the problems of employment, with the branches of the NYPL playing an additional pivotal role between those looking for and those offering work. Excerpts from panel discussions held within the NYPL, featuring contributors from very different backgrounds – scientists, historians, philosophers, poets, artists such as Patti Smith and Elvis Costello – illustrate the central importance given to the cultivation of critical thinking, something it never ceases to promote.

In fact, in an age where creationism, communitarianism, nationalism, climate change skepticism, “fake news,” social and religious unrest and intolerance of others in all its guises wreak havoc, but also where schools appear at the end of their tether, perhaps stretched too thin and faced with a mountain of missions and duties, it seems particularly timely to better understand these other institutions that have succeeded in shifting the critical boundary lines of their domain. In the face of hostile or failing policies, major stakes and challenges become clearer every day. How does one instigate social, cultural and economic inclusion instead of continually destroying it? How does one consolidate the individual and collective appropriation of new – now necessary – skills and knowledge? How does one continuously stimulate the critical thinking of citizens faced with problems both “macro and micro” which overwhelm them every day, so they can escape the cycle of resignation, violence and despair?

A Remarkable Film

For the convincing, not in the least dogmatic, answers he provides to such challenges, “The New York Public Library” is a remarkable film. Let’s hope screenings don’t stop at movie theaters and television sets, but that Wiseman’s film is widely shown and discussed in schools, universities, youth and cultural centers, and associations working in education and the social sphere. Because we need to share this citizen’s experience and discuss it together.

The author, François de Bernard, is a philosopher, consultant and head of GERM, a research and study group on globalization.

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