Yesterday was the first time my wife and I got to visit the library since mid-March. Granted, we sat in our car and waited until a librarian came out and put our holds in the trunk, but it’s a start. Soon we’ll be able to wander halls, peruse the racks, flip through magazines I’m too cheap to buy, and check out all those DVDs not available via streaming (there’s a lot). Public libraries are one of democracy’s most treasured institutions, it’s nice to have them back in whatever capacity we can. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 26, “Libraries: More than a building full of books.”

Located on Fifth Avenue, nestled between 40th and 42nd streets, the New York Public Library is as inspiring as it is imposing. Opened in 1911, and guarded by two marble lions named Patience and Fortitude, this beautiful beaux-arts building functions both as the NYPL’s main branch and a shining beacon of public learning in the Big Apple. Here, locals and tourists can come to see the Rose Reading Room, glimpse a Gutenberg Bible, listen in on an interview with a poet laureate, or simply enjoy a cup of coffee in the marble lobby. For many, this house of knowledge is a place of worship, a hallowed hall that wraps seekers and dreamers within the bosom of knowledge.

But the extent of the NYPL doesn’t stop there. Spanning 88 neighborhood branches and four research centers across three boroughs—Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx—the NYPL is home to more than 53 million items. (Brooklyn and Queens use their own library system.) From books to brochures, paintings to pictures, maps to movies, sculptures to surveys, and everything in between, if you can conceive it, the NYPL probably has it.

That is what makes Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, the latest from legendary documentarian Fredrick Wiseman, both a treat and a charge. Here is a look at a magnificent public institution that makes you want to leap out of your seat and join the cause faster than any other call-to-action documentary in recent memory. And not to stop anyone or march against anything, but simply to support and to engage.

“When we’re talking about philanthropy in the 21st century, inequality is the elephant in the room,” an unidentified NYPL board member tells an advancement team. Why is he unidentified? Why is everyone in this three-hour-and-17-minute documentary unidentified? Because who he is is not the point. The point is what he has to say: “I believe that education, the access to information, is the fundamental solution, over time, to inequality. And I think its power cannot be underestimated.”

There are no title cards and no names to identify who we see or their position at the NYPL. Street signs and building facades are all we are given to orient ourselves geographically in the city. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The mere presence of Wiseman’s camera is all the commentary we need. And what we see are not just people reading quietly in massive halls, but performances ranging from slam poetry to fundraising. Each one underlines one of the NYPL’s many missions: Transform the branches from wonderful but passive repository spaces to education centers.

This is the genius behind Wiseman’s approach to Ex Libris: it’s the message that matters, not the messenger, and certainly not the reception. His mission is to show that this public institution is open to anyone, from those who want to understand the world around them to those who want to participate in it. Within these halls of knowledge, all are welcome. 

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library is available to stream on Kanopy. Header photo courtesy Zipporah Films.