As I sat with 25 other library enthusiasts for 3.5 hours on Sunday, July 15 for a Reel Voices screening of EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library, I was inspired—practically giddy—about the career change that I made in 1998 to become a public librarian. It was a long and winding road but became the culmination of my previous careers as a museum editor, elementary school teacher/librarian and graphic designer and the most fulfilling job as it fulfilled my personal and professional mission. Now more than ever.
During my 10 years at the Paley Center for Media, I remember spending hours at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center doing research on a Leonard Bernstein retrospective we were holding. Which led me to perusing files on New York theatre history, poring over clippings of Vanessa Redgrave, original reviews of Cabaret and early Dylan shows in the Village. Yes, those were extended lunch hours!
Watching Fred Wiseman’s EX LIBRIS on Sunday was a poignant experience because each person had their own story. Some had very direct connections with the NYPL main branch on 42nd studying for important exams in the main hall or bringing children to the Donnell Branch on W. 53rd (where I conducted research for my M.A. thesis on children’s literature). One patron said that libraries and the practice of storytelling literally saved her life as a child in London enduring WWII.
Although there are some recognizable speakers in the film like Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates, filmmaker Fred Wiseman doesn’t use conventional documentary storytelling techniques. There are no talking heads with identifying names, dreamy voiceovers, beautiful music or artful segues. Instead, he lets many cameras roll over the course of a few months and invites us to just sit back and let the story unfold … we watch a collection development team discuss print books vs. e-books (this is real!), attend job search fairs and learn about resources for low-income patrons, strategize on how to welcome the homeless while also respecting issues of comfort for all. We see a very long line of strollers and caregivers waiting for the doors to open for storytime. Sometimes the listening expressions we see aren’t even that engaged—whether it’s during a tedious fundraising meeting or and Elvis Costello talk—but this is real life. These are people getting through life in the city and counting on the library to be part of their regular routines.
Regardless of a library’s budget, location, collection or circulation statistics, the bottom line is this: libraries are a democratizing force. As my colleague who coordinates our ESL Program described once: libraries level the playing field. So while the Main Branch of the NYPL, flanked by the glorious lions Patience and Fortitude, stand as a gold standard, every librarian and visitor of any library across the world is taking part in this great experience of connection. And I couldn’t be happier to get to work each day and do my part.