For storytelling time at the Hillside Public Library, LuAnn Adams recounts the tale of “the Sun man,” who held up the sun but grew older and tired.
She jumps from her seat. She waves her arms, leans in and adds extra emphasis to a cheery voice that already carries across the children’s area.
Children throw their arms up in the air with her. They cheer on “Sun man.” They also go from poking their chins – the site of their imaginary beards – to tickling their toes, because that’s how far the old man’s beard has grown.
And together they eventually rescue him – before moving onto a new story involving a girl, dresses and counting.
“It’s a really great program,” Charlene Noll, the director of the Hillside Public Library, said of the library’s summer storytelling program.
It is programs like these that showcase the continued relevance of libraries on the North Shore, Noll, patrons and several other library directors said, as community centers with ESL classes, music, databases, clubs and other activities that go beyond a hub of books.
The renewed focus on libraries follows publication by Forbes of an opinion article written by LIU Post economics chair Panos Mourdoukoutas on June 21 arguing that libraries should be replaced by bookstores to save taxpayer dollars.
He argued that advances in technology have rendered libraries less relevant, as streaming services and Amazon could provide books and movies at affordable rates to patrons.
He also argued there is no shortage of places to hold community events and “third spaces” like Starbucks allow people to mingle, read and relax.
“At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees,” Mourdoukoutas wrote. “This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.”
In a later tweet, Mourdoukoutas added, “Let me clarify something. Local libraries aren’t free. Home owners must pay a local library tax. My bill is $495/year.”
Forbes, following backlash from library users and supporters, took down the article.
“Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view,” a Forbes spokesperson said in a statement. “Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.”
For Grace Chai, who has taken her two daughters, Annabelle and Carita, to the Hillside Public Library for many years, it has been a place with “a relaxing atmosphere” offering books, crafts, magic shows and science programs.
“We just love it,” Chai, a former teacher in New York City, said. “I enjoy it as much as my daughters do.”
When asked about possibly replacing libraries with Amazon bookstores to save taxpayer dollars, Chai said they’re well worth the taxes because of the books and social aspects.
“I definitely would want a library to be open to offer these programs to the kids because they just enjoy it and it’s hands on, it’s visual … they’re involved, and I like that,” Chai said as her daughters and friends ran off to assemble a stack of books. “I think kids still need that.”
Padmaja Gunjupali, a pediatrician, said her two sons often insist on coming to the library and enjoy “every program.”
“I don’t know about Amazon bookstores, but the library is awesome because there’s a lot of interaction here,” Gunjupali said. “It’s not like people come and go.”
While the library systems on the North Shore vary in size, many directors highlighted an abundance of literacy programs, museum passes, subscription services, workshops and maker spaces involving new technology like 3D printers, as well as an expanding digital presence.
In a previous interview, Great Neck Library Director Denise Corcoran said the library has sought to expand its digital offerings through new services like Kanopy, a movie streaming service.
As of December 2017, the Great Neck Library had more than 230,000 e-books and 51,000 e-Audiobooks, compared with less than 20,000 in 2014, public records suggest.
The Great Neck Library is also creating “maker spaces” with 3D printer technology.
Victor Caputo, the head of the Bryant Library in Roslyn, said his library has “gone digital.” The library allows people to take out Nooks with titles, use a streaming service called Hoopla, and offers classes teaching people how to use smartphones, to name a few things.
“We have had to change,” Caputo said.
But, he also said, the library remains a “community hub.”
“There’s something about having a conversation with someone,” Caputo said, noting how friends would sometimes gather by the circulation desk.
Keith Klang, the director of the Port Washington Library, said the library has aimed to expand its offerings to remain relevant via additional books, online materials, Go Pro cameras and the occasional bird watching kit, telescope or musical instrument.
It has also retained programs like a book group for adults with intellectual disabilities, language courses, job search programs and a host of others.
“Our mission is to be a center for community engagement, knowledge and personal enrichment,” Klang said.
And while the response to the Forbes article was “overwhelmingly positive” because it put what libraries “into the mainstream,” Klang said perhaps more can be done to showcase libraries as more than just a place for books.
“I think if you never used one growing up or you haven’t walked into one in awhile, you might not know all of that,” Klang said. “But it’s also a challenge I see to myself and to other leaders in the library field to improve that image and change that image.”
Mineola Memorial Library Director Charles Sleefe said the Forbes article had “definitely made an impression on my other colleagues.”
But to him, a library is “the best bargain you can get” because of its programs, services, partnerships, and the fact it’s open to everyone.
“Everybody’s got a fair shot and we don’t ask for anything at the door,” Sleefe said. “It’s really what the country is and what it stands for: equal access to all people without question.”
Donna McKenna, the director of the Williston Park Library, said her library is fairly small but it has been a haven to people in tough times.
After Superstorm Sandy, for example, McKenna said the library expanded its hours and let people charge their phones. Librarians also put out an urn of coffee and brought out board games.
“Amazon is an option to get whatever you want, books included, but that’s not all there is, and you can’t buy a literacy group online,” McKenna said. “We’re all about connections and being a community and being there for each other in good times and in bad, so to speak.”
And Digna Johnson, an ESOL instructor with Literacy Nassau, a nonprofit organization offering free literacy classes, said the program has really benefited several students in everyday life.
“It’s very very important for them to gain these skills so that they can function in their homes,” Johnson said in an interview at the Hillside Public Library.
Andrea Meluskey, the director of the Shelter Rock Public Library in Albertson, said libraries have often been referred to as “the great equalizer.”
“When the gentleman [Mourdoukoutas] was talking about opening these Amazon bookstores, they weren’t going to offer everything a library could offer,” Meluskey said.