Frederick Wiseman cracks open institutions: the military, the insane asylum, the high school, the police, the welfare system, the Paris Opera Ballet, the National Gallery of London, and now—in his 43rd film in 50 years—the New York Public Library, an institution eminently worthy of his immersive style. If you thought libraries are just repositories for books, you’re in for a big, wonderful surprise.
The NYPL owns (and makes accessible) millions of images; sponsors lectures by people like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Ta-Nehisi Coates; circulates a growing collection of e-books; maintains a vast archive of materials not available online; and gives classes in digital technology.
The magnificent Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street) is the spine of the film, but equally vital is the role of branch libraries that act as community centers for civic life. “Libraries are the pillars of our democracy,” says Toni Morrison—as Wiseman’s opus makes abundantly and fascinatingly clear.