“Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” the latest documentary from direct cinema workhorse Frederick Wiseman (“In Jackson Heights”), is a minimalist masterpiece on a maximalist scale. Wiseman, who has been steadily churning out documentaries examining American institutions from prisons to hospitals and high schools to colleges since 1967’s “Titicut Follies,” spent about six weeks observing all facets of life at New York Public Library branches. His camera treats executive staff meetings, led by CEO Anthony Marx, with the same attention as career expos and dance classes.
A number of distinguished faces, including musicians Patti Smith and Elvis Costello and authors Richard Dawkins and Ta Nehisi-Coates, appear speaking before large crowds. Even Norman Lear appears in two shots. But the magic of “Ex Libris” lies not in its incidental star power, rather in the diverse and otherwise nondescript faces that define the NYPL’s day-to-day mechanics and patrons: an enthusiastic lecturer on the history of New York delis, a overzealous paper-inserter working out of a wheelchair, a racially-informed discussion about textbook politics in the tiny Macomb’s Bridge branch. At 197 minutes, its runtime may seem daunting, but Wiseman’s patient profile of a critical public institution is overwhelmingly rewarding, not a burden.