Altamont Free Library wins Upper Hudson Library System award for Program of the Year 

Enterprise file photo — Meghan Mulkerrin

The Altamont Free Library’s Altamont Remembers Story Swap was recently named Program of the Year by the Upper Hudson Library System. In the photo from the first event, in October 2019, Joe Burke, who directs the library and hosted the gathering, right, listens to a story with Mary Hughes, center, and her daughter, Meg.

ALTAMONT — The diversity of the program-winning topics among the Upper Hudson Library System annual award illustrates the importance of libraries to their communities. 

This year, the Altamont Free Library, with its oral history Altamont Remembers Story Swap, split Program of the Year honors with the Albany Public Library, and its Sweat The Technique, which featured rapper Rakim — one half of Eric B & Rakim, widely considered to be among the greatest hip-hop duos of all-time.

“Villagers with long memories gathered at the Altamont Free Library” in October 2019, The Enterprise reported at the time, “on the eve of the village’s first Founders Day, to share memories and swap stories.” 

The October 2019 event and Altamont Remembers program were the brainchild of the library’s director, Joe Burke, who “started off with a story about the late Ev Rau remembering his first visit, at age 5, to the train station that now houses the library,” The Enterprise reported. “He and his grandfather rode the train to the state capitol, where his grandfather wept to see the flag he had fought under during the American Civil War.”

That hour-long discussion was hosted by Enterprise editor Melissa Hale-Spencer. It was recorded and posted online as two episodes of the paper’s Other Voices podcast; it will again appear this week as the Other Voices podcast.

The Upper Hudson Library System Program of the Year award goes to innovative programs working “with various community stakeholders who are doing something new and innovative,” Burke told The Enterprise this week, “which is not always the easiest thing to do in the library programming world.” Often it seems, he said, like everything has been tried — many, many times over. “So coming up with something new is the tough bit,” he added.

“It’s a great honor; it’s a very nice acknowledgement of something that we know: Small libraries, community-based libraries, are [and] can be just as innovative as larger libraries with big staffs and lots of people who spend all of their time just thinking about programming, and have big budgets for those sorts of things,” Burke said of winning Program of the Year among the 29 libraries that make up the Upper Hudson system. 

Capturing oral history is important, Burke said; people’s recollections of daily life in a place is really important, that’s the thing this program does really well. 

But sometimes the issue with a one-on-one oral history interview is just that, he said — you’re only getting on one side of a story, you’re only getting the story that person remembers. The reason Burke thinks Altamont Remembers works so well is because there is a back-and-forth among those involved. 

After the October story-swap event, the library held a second event in December 2019. At that event, Burke said, “We had this really nice moment where one of our participants had a memory of his father.”

David Warner’s father, Larry, who had been a one-time mayor of Altamont, Burke said, would sing, “O Holy Night” every Christmas Eve during the midnight service at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. 

“His son David was telling this story,” Burke said. “He was remembering this one year, sometime in the mid-’60s when he accompanied his father in singing ‘O Holy Night’ on guitar. So, [David] played guitar and Larry, the mayor, sang. And that’s it — I mean, that’s that's the whole story, right? There’s no bank robberies, or car chases, or anything like that involved in that memory. It’s just a beautiful version of a simple song ….” 

But what neither Burke nor Warner knew was that, among the dozen attendees of the Altamont Remembers event, were two people who were there that night and remembered that specific incident: David Warner playing guitar while his father sang.

“And then it became something else,” Burke said, because it wasn’t really a story for posterity — but now it is, and it’s on tape.”

There was one person telling the overarching story, Burke said, but then there were others who remembered the weather; the quality of the light in the church and its acoustics; and the other church-goers.

“And that creates something really special, right?” Burke said.

The pandemic has made it impossible to hold more events, but Burke said he’d like to continue with the Altamont Remembers program once it is safe to.

The Altamont library won a Program of the Year award once before, sometime in 2013 or 2014 — Burke wasn’t sure; it was before his time as director, he said. That program allowed kids to build their own skateboards — from raw wood to finished product. But in exchange for the board the youths had to do community service, 10 hours or so, Burke said. 

Judith Wines, the library’s director before Burke, had wanted to coax the kids she saw skateboarding outside the library to come inside. She teamed up with  the Albany County District Attorney’s office to create a youth outreach program called SK8; Create Your Skate. Forty-eight kids built skateboards and then used them to skate around the village and pick up donated foods for Altamont’s food pantry and to deliver books to the homebound; they also served as mentors to younger kids, reading to them in the Book Buddies program.

“These are kids that should not be feared,” District Attorney David Soares said at the time, “even if they have long hair and wear colorful clothes.”

“We still have three skateboards from folks who went through the whole project but they never picked up garbage,” Burke said with a laugh. 

One of the things that made Altamont Remembers possible were several donations made to the library in honor of local archivist and Altamont Museum curator Marijo Dougherty, Burke said, which allowed the library to buy a microphone and to pay for transcription services of the recordings. 

Dougherty herself recorded the first reminiscence for the project just before she died.

“And so,” said Burke, “this is another way of honoring Marijo and the work that she did in capturing Altamont’s history and preserving it.”


More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.