Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Russo’s relationship with the Gloversville Public Library began in the early stages of his childhood.
He would walk to the library with his mother from his house on Helwig Street and get lost in the maze of bookshelves, even occasionally wandering into the adult section.
Russo, who some say has portrayed Gloversville in a negative light in his novels and now lives in Maine, returned to the library Thursday to speak as the honorary chairman of a campaign to renovate the historic building, one of many across the nation funded by industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
The circa-1904 building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Russo addressed a crowd of about 50 people about the vital role a library plays in a community.
“Libraries like this one in towns like Gloversville, I believe, are the beating heart of our drums,” he said. “Thanks in large part to many Saturday mornings in this library, I now have a library of my own.”
Russo said libraries serve a segment of the community that isn’t able to purchase books.
“Educated, relatively well-to-do people generally like libraries, even love them and the idea of them, but they don’t need them the way people with fewer resources do,” he said.
Russo added it is not easy for every person to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” and that faith in government institutions needs to be restored.
“It is not unusual to hear poor people blamed for their poverty, and the same is true for communities,” he said. “In America, we love stories of self-made men, but I am a product of public education and government-backed student loans and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville library.”
However, the building itself is increasingly less capable of meeting the community’s needs, said library Director Barbara Madonna. She said the library still needs donations from the public to complete the renovations. She said the $7 million project is $1.8 million shy of getting off the ground.
“For kids to learn and have fun here, we need to change some things,” she said. “The goal is to continue to be a community center.”
The renovations would include an elevator, new meeting rooms, a new children’s space, energy-efficient windows and lighting, heating and air conditioning upgrades.
Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, called Russo his literary hero and said he was honored to be able to meet him.
“In this fast-paced day and age, I think that people began to question the value of libraries,” he said. “In this magnificent building, there is an opportunity for so many people to learn about life and things that you can’t get on the Internet or on a cellphone.”
In an era when books have become digitally accessible, Russo said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of libraries.
“I have sensed a change in the landscape that people are actually going back to reading physical books,” he said. “People are beginning to realize how cold the Internet’s embrace is and in the wrong hands how damaging it can be.
“It is going to be interesting to find out about the future generations, but I am cautiously optimistic that kids will find out what is real and what is good for them.”
Stephanie Bollam of Voorheesville described herself as an “unabashed” fan of Russo and said Gloversville is very fortunate to have him as a native son.
“He is from here, and now that he has come back to the city again, it is really so great,” said Bollam, who waited more than 30 minutes for Russo to sign her copy of “Empire Falls” following the event. “It’s amazing that this marvelous literary mind is from right here.”