Beaufort has a long and distinguished library history, begun when the State of South Carolina granted a charter in 1807 to the Beaufort Library Society. By 1860 there were more than 3,000 volumes on the Society's shelves, encompassing contemporary works and valuable reference books. These were housed at the old College of Beaufort Building (now part of the University of South Carolina at Beaufort).
The Union army confiscated the collection in 1862 and shipped the books to New York City to be sold at public auction as rebel property. Northern editors, aroused by this action, editorialized so fervently that Treasury Secretary Chase stopped the sale saying, "The Union does not war on libraries." He promised the return of the library at the close of hostilities. This promise was never kept, however, because the collection was destroyed before the war ended by a fire that consumed the wing of the Smithsonian Institution where it was stored. In 1950 with the aid of Senator Burnet Maybank, the South Carolina State Library Board was able to secure from the federal government repayment to the Beaufort County Library for the book collection carried away so many years ago.
Following the ravages of war, and the misery of reconstruction, reactivation of a public library was delayed until a local women's club, the Clover Club, started a small lending library on February 4, 1902. The library grew steadily despite a fire and several moves, with Clover Club members serving as volunteer librarians.
At the time of the Clover Club's twentieth anniversary in 1911 the members realized a need for a permanent library building and undertook to raise a building fund. The City of Beaufort donated a lot on the corner of Craven and Carteret Streets. Senator Neils Christensen procured $7,500 from the Carnegie Foundation of New York for the building, with the understanding that the library would be supported locally. The building was erected in 1918 and the Beaufort Township Library opened its doors to the public with a nucleus of 2,000 books donated by the Clover Club Library. Miss Adeline Scheper was the first librarian.
In 1931 the Berean Presbyterian Church building on Carteret Street was purchased with funds from a trust held by the Library Board "for library purposes for the colored citizens of Beaufort Township." It was renovated and opened in 1932 as the J.L. Washington Branch of the Beaufort Township Library and operated as such until 1965.
On May 25, 1961 a county-wide library system was approved. In 1962, by an Act of the General Assembly of South Carolina, the Beaufort Township Library became the Beaufort County Library, and entered into an agreement with the South Carolina State Library Board for a two year County Library Demonstration program. The library became fully integrated and a bookmobile was purchased for service to rural areas of the county. The Laura Towne Library at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, which had been a separate library operating its own bookmobile, became a branch of the county system.
In 1963 the Beaufort County Library received the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award as the nation's outstanding small library. This was a signal honor for a young library system established only two years previously. The award of $5,000 was used to purchase books to add to the library's book collection. In the same year, 1963, the library employed its first professional librarian as director of the system.
The growth of the book collection since 1918 and expanded county library services necessitated a larger building. A trade of the old library building for property owned by the City of Beaufort was negotiated, plans were drawn, and construction begun, with 50% of the financing for the project coming from the Accelerated Public Works Program. The library moved into its new building in 1964. In December of 1966 a new bookmobile with a book capacity of 1,600 volumes was purchased.
Rapid population growth and library (bookmobile) use on Hilton Head island brought about the establishment of a branch library there on February 12, 1969, The branch occupied a modified double wide trailer provided by a group of interested islanders. In 1973 Beaufort County Council allocated $265,000 in Revenue Sharing funds and the Hilton Head Company deeded one and one-half acres of land to the Library Board of Trustees for a building site. The new branch library building was opened on February 14, 1976.
Because of dwindling circulation, the Laura Towne Branch was closed in 1973, to be replaced by increased bookmobile service throughout the area it had formerly served. In the same year a new bookmobile with a capacity of 3,000 volumes was purchased to replace a 1966 model.
Due to changes in state and local governmental structure brought about by the Home Rule Act, the Beaufort County Library System was reestablished in 1979 by an ordinance of County Council to continue in its purpose of providing library service throughout Beaufort County.
Larry Rogers, Hilton Head, 1961-65
Rivers Varn, Beaufort, 1965-77
Mrs. Nancy F. Pearson, Beaufort, 1977-
T. Ray Peppers, 1962-66
Mrs. Betty M. Ragsdale, 1966-72
Julie Zachowski, 1972-
Estellene P. Walker,
"So Good and Necessary a Work": The Public Library in South Carolina, 1698-1980
(Columbia: South Carolina State Library, 1981), pp. 13-14.
A note on the text