The main branch of the New York Public Library — the Beaux-Arts landmark at Fifth Avenue and 42 Street with the stone lions — opened its doors to a ravenous population on May 24, 1911. More than 50,000 souls are said to have flowed through its marble grandeur, inaugurating what has been an intimate, mutually sustaining union between the public and its library. In his magnificent new documentary “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” Frederick Wiseman takes his camera into those same halls as well as into more humble city branches. He sweeps into atriums and down corridors, pauses in reading and meeting rooms, and lays bare this complex, glorious organism that is the democratic ideal incarnate.
It is an ideal that emerges piecemeal in a movie that starts with a declaration of independent thinking and closes on an exultant and deeply moving self-reflexive note. In between, the practical and the philosophical meet head on in “Ex Libris” as discussions about budget concerns and the public good swirl amid orders for building renovations and larger questions about the digital divide. Places come into view as do people who read, deliberate and declaim uptown and down, largely in Manhattan though also in the Bronx. (Mr. Wiseman isn’t in the information business, so it seems worth mentioning that there are three separate library systems in the city, including the Queens Library and the Brooklyn Public Library.)
Over many decades and movies, Mr. Wiseman’s great subject has been institutions, places that he once loosely defined as having “certain kinds of geographical limitations and where at least some of the people have well-established roles.” He’s particularly sensitive to the ebb and flow of humans inside these places and, unsurprisingly, given this documentary’s focus, he seems especially attentive here to the sounds of that flow. (As usual, Mr. Wiseman recorded the movie’s sound and is its editor.) In one scene, the poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s words bounce off hard walls; elsewhere, only the rustling of turning manuscript pages disturbs a room’s tranquillity.
A master dialectician, Mr. Wiseman incessantly shifts in “Ex Libris” between quiet and noise, macro and micro, patrons and administrators. A shot of the main branch’s exterior accompanied by the…