Ex Libris, renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman's in-depth study of the New York Public Library, begins with author Richard Dawkins emphasizing the importance of the world's unreligious.
While Dawkins promotes his foundation for reason and science in the famed white marble lobby of the library's iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the audience members stand in reverence, faces upturned to their hero. This may be a talk from an atheist, but Wiseman's lingering shots of the library's stunning Beaux-Arts architectural details and the rapt crowd evoke a holy site.
I made the pilgrimage to the Schwarzman building during my years as a Master of Information student. Any self-respecting librarian needs a picture with Patience and Fortitude, the library's famed marble lions that guard the structure.
"There is no crime in ignorance," Dawkins says during his talk. "We're all ignorant of many things."
Chief among them may just be the spectacular breadth of programs and services NYPL offers, which Wiseman seeks to capture in their entirety throughout a run-time of three hours and 17 minutes (!).
The Dawkins lecture in the marble splendour of Astor Hall cuts to a cubicle-filled office, where librarians with headsets sit at messy desks talking callers through their reference questions, which cover every topic under the sun.
"A unicorn is an imaginary animal," one librarian explains in a patient, non-judgmental voice.
From there we are off to a fundraising meeting, where well-heeled New Yorkers hear about how they are helping to bridge the digital divide.
Wiseman has made a career examining institutions using his observational style of documentary making. His movies lack the traditional structure we have come to expect from documentaries: interviews, narration or even a story arc. He is said to do little preparation in anticipation of a project, rather filming upward of 100 hours of raw footage and then sifting through the film during the editing process as a theme emerges.
Perhaps, then, I should be grateful this movie wasn't longer. Because three-hours-plus is an absurd amount of time to sit through the visual equivalent of thumbing through the NYPL's program guide.
Not that the breadth of the library's offerings should be underestimated. We flit from watching children in after-school programs working on loaner laptops to a classic piano recital, newspaper archives, a seniors' dance class, an internet hotspot loaner program, robotics class for kids, a workshop for sign language theatre interpreters, a salon interview with Elvis Costello, a black community meeting and many more activities.
Wiseman's decisions to linger a little too long at meetings and presentations makes three hours feel like an eternity. During one scene, a librarian explains the impressive Picture Collection, home to more than one million prints, postcards and illustrations, filed neatly into subject folders that are available for easy browsing. He holds an example filed, "dogs in action." He then goes through the folder extensively, holding each photo up in turn. "Here's a person having fun with a large dog, a dog that fetched the newspaper, digging, leaping and wet, someone trying the pull the dog's jaws open…" We get it – there are a lot of pictures.
Recurrent NYPL executive meetings deliver some optimism. Here we are presented with the best of city building: thoughtful, concerned citizens who work to ensure all New Yorkers have access to the resources to improve their lives and satisfy their every curiosity. These are the people actually making America great.
"Some people still think of the library as a storage space for books!" someone says at another staff meeting. Wiseman has news for those who haven't set foot in a library for more than 25 years: It's not! (Of course.)
It pains that this documentary was so tedious, since the New York Public Library is the crown jewel of public institutions, deserving of every accolade. If you want to spend three hours finding out what the library has to offer, save yourself the price of a movie ticket and head down to your local branch.