First Person November 7, 2017

What a library can be


Ralph Waldo Emerson, while an overseer at Harvard in 1868, recorded in his journal that “in the perplexity in which the literary public now stands with regard to university education . . . the one safe investment which all can agree to increase is the library”. That opinion is far from unanimous now. As Ivanka Trump was tweeting #NationalLibraryWeek in April, President Trump was proposing cutting federal funding for libraries entirely. (Disaster was narrowly avoided in the House of Representatives last month thanks to a massive public outcry, but long-term funding remains uncertain.) Writers continue to be among libraries’ most outspoken and eloquent advocates. Take the two Smiths, for example, Ali and Zadie – the former a tireless champion for the public library; the latter a bit more tired, though no less incisive, writing: “the thing that is most boring about defending libraries is the imputation that an argument in defence of libraries is necessarily a social-liberal argument”.

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary Ex Libris a three-and-a-half-hour dive into the labyrinths of the New York Public Library that was recently screened at the BFI film festival – brilliantly intervenes in the complex story of the American library at a crucial moment. From Titicut Follies (1967), which exposed the mistreatment of mentally ill patient–inmates in a Massachusetts hospital, to State Legislature (2007) and National Gallery (2014), his oeuvre shows him to be no stranger to the institution. Preferring quiet observation to intrusive narration, Wiseman’s films use institutions as frames – the “excuse”, he says – for his real focus: people.

In the first moments of Ex Libris, Richard Dawkins gesticulates before a crowd in Astor Hall, his voice echoing beneath its marble vault; later a staffer for the “Ask NYPL” hotline, after patiently explaining to a caller that a unicorn “is actually an imaginary animal”, traces its etymology to 1225: “I’ll have to translate this from Middle English, which I’m a little poor in”, he says apologetically. “But he’s sort of saying that man is a wolf on the outside, but inside himself . . . he’s a unicorn.” We watch as exuberant employers busk at a job fair in the Queens library branch, as a librarian in the NYPL’s Picture Collection teems with excitement while exhibiting cuttings from a folder titled “Dogs in Action”, and as children do their maths homework in reading rooms – perhaps the only truly open and free spaces left in the city.

Henry James in 1907 praised the NYPL’s “inestimable structure”, which turns out to be apt. In constellating these scenes of human activity, Ex Libris reveals the innumerable tiny worlds that comprise the library’s ecosystem. But range suggests something more than capaciousness: what Wiseman is continually making and unmaking is the very notion of what a book is, and what a library can be. In one moving scene, an actor sits in a silent darkened room of the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, recording a reading of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark.

Anthony Lane argued in the New Yorker that the film’s single drawback is the relative absence of physical tomes: “Where are the books? Did they fly away, flapping their pages? Were they drowned by some apocalyptic Prospero?” But this seems to miss the point. True, in 2015 (when Ex Libris was shot) there are more laptops on reading tables than dictionaries, and the digital age looms large. This is nowhere more apparent than in a series of scenes from the library’s senior staff meetings, which punctuate the film at regular intervals. Probing questions illustrate the library’s struggle to define and sustain itself: the prioritization of print versus e-reading acquisition, the future of educational partnerships with city schools and the ever-precarious balance between public and private funding feature prominently. But is this the assault of the new, or the resurgence of an old debate? We might recall that when America’s most renowned educational institutions – universities and libraries, public and private – coalesced in modern form at the turn of the twentieth century, the very notion of reading was undergoing a sea-change, too. Creative practices of “free reading” replaced rote learning; the individualist spirit of nineteenth-century pragmatism and transcendentalism nestled in the core of democratic communal institutions. It has never been merely about the books themselves, but the readers who put them to use.

In the conversation following the BFI Festival screening, Wiseman asserted that “Trump has made this a political movie”. Indeed, the trend of defunding and gutting the public library, in both the UK and US, is unignorable. But given that discussions of a library’s purpose and value (both in Ex Libris and in the film’s reception) are often framed in terms of ethical and social obligation, might this film offer a way out of what Zadie Smith refers to as the “boring”, ineffectual defence of libraries as forces for public good? What Wiseman brings into stark relief is the sheer persistence of knowledge and culture ­– the way books manage to reassert themselves through institutional and archival memory long after they were written. Towards the end of the film, at a board of trustees meeting, Kwane Anthony Appiah (a Professor at NYU) presents material held by the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It concerns Phyllis Wheatley, an eighteenth-century slave and one of the first African American poets to have her work published. Careful preservation and attentive curation can be the difference between knowledge and forgetting, Appiah reminds the room: “Her poems are her only legacy”.

Stephanie Kelley is a Masters student in Victorian Literature at Balliol College, Oxford and an intern at the TLS