The subject is libraries, NYPL and the title refers to books, but very few books appear in the movie.
The opening scenes show expert patron handlers answering the phone as questions come into the reference desk. What books are out on my account right now? Can I put a popular book on hold? When did the unicorn first appear in print literature? The indefatigable librarians answer every question with grace and poise and courtesy. Other customer- librarian contact involve genealogy research and demonstrate the depth of knowledge librarians serve on a regular basis.
But mostly the movie shows the range of programming:
+conversations with the head of the Schomburg
+children building robots and learning how to code
And meetings! So many meetings. The management, and the executive director, Tony Marx, are filmed at least 10 times discussing internet access, ebooks budget, community planning, private/public funding, how to keep the city adminstration engaged, and the library staff cooperating with the city upon whom half of the budget depends. Private donors continue to fund the massive group of buildings, teams of librarians, and collections that range from the giant main branch at 42nd St. and the dozens of branches around Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
Other programs that really stood out:
+the picture collection being described and used by art students
+students being tutored
+job seekers being counseled as they are looking for work
+blind readers finding books, and learning how to read Braille
+a book on tape being recorded.
One of my favorite scenes showed how the interlibrary loans get sorted and delivered. I always wondered about that: it is automated!
Wiseman’s subject is how institutions work. As in his movie about Jackson Heights, he never seems to tire of meetings, of listening to people talk to each other at round tables, every day conversations that are innately uncinematic, but instrumental to our understanding of how things work, the slow pace at which progress is made.
More troubling of a flaw was the lack of identification of the people who were filmed. Once in a while, you get lucky, and Elvis Costello’s book jacket appears with his name in large letters, and then the unnamed interviewer even speaks his name aloud, but mostly you just absorb the speeches and concerts and librarians without knowing who they are. I know who Anthony Marx is, but who is Iris? Is she an architect? The chief operating officer? Who is the important woman in meetings who gets to speak most, the one with blond hair?
More interesting to Wiseman is the fabric of the streets of the metropolis, the context within which the library must survive: the homeless sleeping on benches, the fire engines bellowing to their assignment, the names of the branches and the neighborhoods they are in. Many fond shots of the irresistible architecture of the 42nd St. branch appear, and the selfies taken with it as a backdrop.
A major focus of NYPL when Wiseman filmed was how to reduce the divide between those who have access to the internet and those left out. According to the website, “Parents and guardians of NYC public school kids can be eligible for FREE Wi-Fi at home through The New York Public Library’s Library HotSpot program, designed for patrons without home internet.” Another digital concern is how the library allocates funds for ebooks versus physical books. As technology evolves, so do the library’s programs. As one person remarked, whoever thought the library was going out of date because of technology did not know what they were talking about.