The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (The New York Public Library)

Frederick Wiseman’s sweeping yet focused look at the New York Public Library lasts 197 minutes, but very little of that time feels wasted. (Those watching it in the theaters may want to time their bathroom breaks to coincide with the numerous board meeting scenes, which do get a little repetitive.)

Opening with a well-received discussion by atheist author Richard Dawkins and closing more than three hours later with the philosophizing of Edmund de Waal—both of them held at the NYPL’s crown jewel, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue—the documentary moves to branches in various, mostly Manhattan, locations.

The New York Public Library, one of three systems in the New York City area, is a multifaceted institution. (Brooklyn and Queens function separately.) Wiseman highlights the grand and glorious in the marbled halls of the Schwartzman (“the one with the lions,” as a librarian points out) and the smaller, more intimate or niche iterations, such as the Bronx’s Jerome Park branch, where local kids are guided through interactive computer programs by patient, bemused teachers not much older than themselves, and the Lincoln Center–based Performing Arts Library.

Each library visited receives an establishing shot of the streets and community where it’s located—no subtitles here, nor is there a narrator or interviewer. Wiseman lets his subjects speak for themselves, whether it’s a managerial type talking strategy in a board meeting or the head of the Midtown Library’s picture collection name-dropping Andy Warhol and Diego Rivera.

The myriad services the library system provides are shown, not told. At the Braille and Talking Book Library, people learn Braille, an announcer records a talking book, and community members find information about housing for people with disabilities. A Chinatown branch, decorated with cheerful posters about “New Americans,” has staffers aiding patrons with downloading family photos. A job fair at the Fordham/Kingsbridge branch informs residents about the many opportunities in government, construction, and armed services arenas.

Frequently punctuating the various visits are behind-the-scenes strategy meetings of the NYPL’s higher-ups. Though they are not named, except by each other in passing, you begin to get a read on their personalities and status. While the filmmaker does not editorialize outright, he does so subtly: for instance, a board discussion about helping homeless patrons is preceded by shots of homeless persons sitting in the reading rooms of the main branch and sleeping outside in the park behind it. Earnest disquisitions about the library’s role in educating the public and bridging the “digital divide” are interspersed with a George Bruce Branch librarian dispensing free Wi-Fi hot spots to her Harlem-based patrons.

Sound is an important element, whether it is the hushed halls, the reading rooms where pages rustle and mouses click, a noisy but joyful robot-building maker workshop for school kids, or a poet’s impassioned performance, accompanied by a squawking infant in the audience. The sounds and sights of the neighborhoods where the branches are located add local flavor, as do the many shots of the varied patrons and audience members.

Wiseman looks at what patrons are looking at, too, which provokes curiosity. Computer users sift through emails and microfiche. A patron with a shaved head takes notes while reading about colorectal cancer. Another man reads from the collected works of William Burroughs. The film courses with life and lives, and almost everybody looks interesting in it, including the famous guest speakers (Elvis Costello, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Patti Smith, all too briefly) and the public.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library’s long running time pays off for viewers, giving them large swaths of performances, lectures, Q&As, behind-the-scene staff meetings, and lots and lots (and LOTS) of people taking photos of the Schwartzman Building. You’ll feel like you’re there, and this film might just inspire you to renew that library card.

Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Released by Zipporah Films
USA. 197 min. Not rated