On the surface, it’s easy to write off Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 film Ex Libris: The New York Public Library as a sleepy, incredibly long documentary (three hours and 26 minutes, to be precise) about the comings and goings at New York’s chief library, writes Holly O’Mahony…
You could call it a behind-the-scenes nosy into what makes the library tick and an endearing insight to the visitors who depend on it most. But there’s more to it than that.
“Ex Libris is just a wonderful reminder of the central role libraries play in communities everywhere,” points out Caroline Jupp, who programmed the upcoming screening of the film at Deptford Cinema. “Turning his curious eye to one of the world’s greatest institutions of learning, Wiseman offers us a captivating and engrossing portrait of this incredible resource of knowledge that is there for all of New York’s inhabitants,” she enthuses. “The film takes us inside board meetings, talks with guest speakers [including Patti Smith and Elvis Costello], book club events and donors’ dinners, as well as the day-to-day activities of lending books.”
The screening is part of Deptford Cinema’s ‘Unseen in 2018’ series, a project which aims to show some of the best films released in 2018 that were neglected by mainstream cinemas. “Ex Libris was one of the titles mentioned to us and I jumped at the opportunity because of a strong personal interest – I work as a librarian and am part of the Save Lewisham Libraries campaign,” Caroline explains.
“I love the slow and eclectic way the film gives its audience access to so much of what goes on in libraries,” she says. Are there any specific examples of when this is done effectively? “At one point, the camera lingers on the upturned faces of a crowd of people listening to an inspirational speaker and you can just see that thirst for knowledge – the questioning, the desire for learning that’s in us all.”
Any favourite moments in the film? “One of my favourite parts is when the filmmaker visits the Manhattan Picture Library which has been used by the likes of Andy Warhol. All the pictures are still accessible as hard copy in card folders – I’d love to browse that collection!”
In Ex Libris, a worker at New York Public Library points out: “A lot of people think [libraries] are a storage space for books, but libraries are about people.” It’s a sentiment Caroline firmly agrees with. “This film definitely focuses on the library users and the library workers seeking to serve them, rather than the library as a repository,” she says.
“The same can be said for Lewisham Libraries – locally, we have seen so many staff cut and made redundant, yet trained library workers are becoming ever more important in this digital era,” Caroline says, adding that libraries are often where people go if they need help applying for Universal Credit or very basic needs such as money for food and housing.
It’s because of this that documentaries like Ex Libris take on a secondary role of reasserting the value and relevance of public facilities – in this case libraries – in the digital age. “Sadly, our beloved institutions of public learning are under threat,” says Caroline. “Even though the right to ‘a comprehensive and efficient library service for all’ is enshrined in law, there is a huge crisis in public libraries in the UK, with council library budgets slashed, library closures [130 closed last year alone] and huge numbers of professional and trained library staff being made redundant.”
Caroline is hopeful that, as well as enjoying Ex Libris, audience members leave the screening feeling inspired to fight for their own public library. “I hope that people will be inspired by this documentary to feel a little more compelled to fight for the remaining libraries that we have left here in the UK,” she says. “I hope it’s not too late; that a decade down the line we [are left to] regret what we lost.”
The screening of Ex Libris at Deptford Cinema will be held in two parts, with an informal discussion with library campaigners in between.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is showing at Deptford Cinema, 39 Deptford Broadway, London SE8 4PQ. March 30, from 4:30pm – 9pm.
Admission: £6/£4.50 concessions.