Ex Libris: New York Public Library ★★★½

My first time with a Wiseman feature, and this is an instance in which I must wear two hats: as an amateur movie critic, and as a professional library technician. As the latter this verité examination of the workings and machinations of the NYPL is particularly engrossing, insofar as I find myself ticking off boxes of how many similarities and differences I see with this enormous urban system and the five-branch, understaffed rural one in which I work -- more similarities than I expected, actually. I'm envious of a few things, like having such hands-on higher-ups and awesome guest speakers (Patti Smith, wow!), and I have mixed feelings about other matters; for instance, in a system as large as NYPL everyone has a pretty clearly designated task and specialty, whereas in my career my coworkers and I are expected to fill the roles of everything from social worker to research assistant to systems administrator to just "the guy who checks your stuff out to you" -- I think I actually prefer my situation overall, but that's another story. I couldn't stop thinking about the wildly advanced procedure Wiseman shows us for sending in-transit books across the city (conveyor belts, laser scanners integrated with ILS and automatic transport are involved) while I was loading and unloading a van full of holds today. But again, so many elements of reference checking, circulation and even programming are virtually identical to our day-to-day practices, which is the same impression I got on a wonderful rainy day visit to the NYPL's main branch in 2013. We don't have a full-time reference librarian whereas NYPL even has reference librarians that sit all day and answer questions for you via telephone, but I was overcome with empathy and familiarity when the guy toward the beginning had to keep totally cool, serious and free of condescension when informing a patron that unicorns are not real. I don't know if I've ever seen the basic nature of this field more completely and hilariously defined in a matter of seconds.

I would honestly have liked more film of the day-to-day operations of the library, rather than the behind-the-scenes finagling and the numerous guest lectures, but that may again be a mark of bias. I also just find this sort of documentary filmmaking to be my preference: no voiceover, no arbitrary "context," just a sensation of being dumped right in the middle of life, and it's often a privileged occasion (the discussion among staff and patrons at the Macomb's Bridge branch in Harlem about egregious erasure of slavery in a McGraw Hill textbook was a fraught and vital illustration of the casual presence of racism in day-to-day existence); and the things Wiseman chooses to capture will likely prove prescient and intriguing as technology moves beyond this period. Even for me, however, the endless footage of budgetary meetings are a bit much, especially when the picture runs to over 200 minutes, but I do understand the point he's subtly making with their inclusion, and can vouch for the thesis: libraries are expected to have absolutely everything and fill every possible need that the public can imagine, and yet no one wants to actually take the initiative to fund them well enough that they can be taken for granted to the extent that they are (I see this phenomenon constantly with older patrons complaining to me about "the government," something they seem oddly comfortable doing in conversation with a government employee, but I digress). At any rate, because of both what I do for a living and my own love of libraries, this was completely absorbing, but I think a shorter version of it might do a lot to persuade those who don't understand how important -- in fact, indispensable -- these institutions are.