The world’s fourth-largest library, with 87 branches, is examined by veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman

Dir: Frederick Wiseman. US. 2017. 197mins

 “A unicorn is actually an imaginary animal”, a patient New York Public Library telephone operator informs a caller near the beginning of Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. Wiseman’s meticulous and mostly absorbing record of the inner and outer workings of the world’s fourth largest library, with its 87 citywide branches (one for each of the director’s 87 years), charts the vibrancy, relevance and resilience of an institution, and an idea, that shows no signs of becoming imaginary anytime soon.

At grass-roots branch level, spontaneity, passion and genuine engagement beam out from the screen

Simmering just below the surface is a political message about libraries as places of social and intellectual engagement, empowered memory and pursuit of the truth in an America where such values are under attack.

The running time of just over three and a quarter hours is typical of the director’s observational, community-set work of the last thirty years, but this is a rare case of a Wiseman that feels just a little baggy. Perhaps this is because the veteran documentarist needs the unity of place to galvanise him – something that is much easier to achieve when filming an institution with a single geographical base, like two recent Wiseman targets, London’s National Gallery and the University of Berkeley. The New York Public Library’s tentacular spread across the city, its several specialised branches (among them the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a picture library, a library for the blind and visually impaired) create a challenge for Wiseman.

While he resolves it, brilliantly, in the way he uses this spread to flag the diversity and community outreach of this dynamic factory of learning, the price paid is to give Ex Libris a diffuse feel, an overview of planets in a cultural galaxy, each of which might have made a separate Frederick Wiseman documentary.

Among the most absorbing elements of this documentary are the talks, moderated or direct, given as part of the library’s Live from the NYPL literary conversations and other public programme series (as always, no subjects are identified by captions). Opening with a stirring foyer talk by British scientist and radical atheist Richard Dawkins, Wiseman goes on to splice in, among other gems, a lecture on a rebellion of Muslim clerics in 17th-century Senegal, another on the place of the deli as a social aggregator in Lower East Side Jewish communities, an animated, good-humoured public interview with musician Elvis Costello, and a live performance by street poet Miles Hodges which drew applause from the audience at the film’s Venice festival press screening (Wiseman knows to cut before the on-screen applause to stoke the immediacy of the rapport).

Less engaging are the frequent board meetings helmed by library president Anthony Marx. As in National Gallery, these inner-circle discussions engage with issues that we see playing out on the ‘floor’ of the institution - education, the need to attract private donors via gala dinners and other events, access to the internet among New York’s digital have-nots (“three million are in the digital dark”, one policy maker informs the group), what to do about the homeless who use the libraries as a place to keep warm and catch up on some shut-eye.

Full of coded corporate-speak, these careful linguistic dances are intriguing in one sense, in that they demonstrate just to what extent the language of business and the politically correct minefield of American academia have infiltrated US cultural institutions and removed the sting, the drama, the eccentricity, from its internal debates. But that makes for a pretty flat viewing experience.

In complete contrast is much of the work being carried out at grass-roots branch level, where spontaneity, passion and genuine engagement beam out from the screen. There’s a marvellous glimpse of a teaching session with elementary school kids in the education room of the Library’s Jerome Park branch in the Bronx, a sequence that should be required viewing for all who doubt that the US has all it needs to ride out its current dumbing-down phase. In the Library’s picture section, two curators who are clearly love their jobs raise the fascinating question, still unsolved in the Google era, of how you classify images so artists, researchers and others can find them.

Shot and edited with Wiseman’s customary poetry and precision, Ex Libris is structured as a series of forays from the Library’s Fifth Avenue heart to its orbiting satellites, and back again. The sculpted marble, mahogany and brass of the mothership, founded just before World War I, and the bright modern functionalism of outlying neighbourhood branches like Jerome Street, tell a story of private philanthropy and public engagement that acts a clear-headed reminder of a phrase of Toni Morrison’s, quoted here at one point during a gala dinner speech: libraries, we are told, are the foundation of democracy.

Production companies: Zipporah Film

International Sales: Doc & Film Intternational,

Producer: Frederick Wiseman

Executive producer: Karen Konicek

Cinematography: John Davey

Editor: Frederick Wiseman