Library History

Our story begins in the 1700s and continues through present day. Read about multiple structure fires, ravages of war, and the dedicated community who made the dream of a library for all possible.


Bluffton Branch Library Renovations, Beginning March 2021

The Bluffton Branch opened in 2002 and witnessed enormous community growth since. The renovations are designed as a response to usage, community feedback, focus groups, and surveys. Approximately 60% of the branch will undergo renovations.


On March 20, 2019 the Beaufort County Library system officially welcomed its second Bookmobile at a ribbon cutting ceremony held at the Hilton Head Branch Library. The second Bookmobile, nicknamed Bookmobile-South, was added to the library’s fleet thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Hilton Head Library. Bookmobile-South provides services to residents of Hilton Head, Bluffton, and surrounding areas throughout the southern portion of Beaufort County while the library’s original Bookmobile, Bookmobile-North, serves residents throughout the northern portion of Beaufort County.


Parish Church of St. Helena established a book collection for its clergymen

The first record of any book collections in Beaufort County was the establishment of a small library of theological materials for the rectors and priests of the St. Helena's Parish Church in 1755. Rev. Alexander Baron, a Scot who had most recently served at St. Paul's Parish at Stono near Charleston, became rector  of St. Helena's and thereby the collection's caretaker in 1757. Chapter One, "Colonial Beginnings" written by Ray Flannagan of Amazing Grace lists some of the titles included in this library: The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament, An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles, etc. Flannagan concluded that the titles were originally used as reference materials for the writing of sermons and instruction of the congregation in Bible studies. He stated that "As an artifact, the St. Helena's library of about sixty-eight folio volumes and one quarto volume exemplify the best of the best books of Anglican theology. It was worthy of the Bishop of Winchester's private library, if not the Archbishop of Canterbury's." (p. 38)


Beaufort Library Society is founded.


Beaufort Library Society is incorporated by the State of South Carolina for the purpose of establishing a public library in the town of Beaufort. 


In the decades before the Civil War, many of Beaufort's rice and cotton planters were rich enough to send their children to schools and colleges in Europe. The young men and women who stayed home had a respectable education in the schools of Beaufort or with private tutors nonetheless. Beaufort College (building at 801 Carteret Street, Beaufort) had been chartered in 1795 as preparatory school, and opened as a college in 1802. That same year, the Beaufort Library Society was founded by Dr. James Finley, Stephen Elliott, Robert Barnwell, Milton Maxcy, and Robert Screven for discussion of important books of the day. In 1803, the Society petitioned the State of South Carolina that "Your petitioners have formed themselves into a Society for the purpose of purchasing books and forming a Public Library." The Society was incorporated by the State of South Carolina in on December 19, 1807 and renewed in 1820.


The Beaufort Library Society collection is moved to the College of Beaufort building for safe keeping. (The sketch above of the old College of Beaufort building shows as it was in 1862. The structure is now the Administration Building for the northern campus of the University of South Carolina Beaufort.)


The Beaufort Library Society Collection is Confiscated


The Collection is confiscated by the Federal government tax collectors, saved by the Secretary of the Treasury, and stored at the Smithsonian Institution.


By 1860, the library's collection included more than 5,000 volumes, about half of which donated by Beaufortonians who had purchased them on voyages to Europe. The books covered many subjects, from government to sciences, from law to literature, and from philosophy to religion -- as well as general works, like the Encyclopædia Britannica. Thus by the time of the Civil War, "The Beaufort Library [had] gathered one of the finest book collections in the South." (Rowland et al., vol.1, p. 287) During the Civil War, the Union Army confiscated the Beaufort Library Collection. All of the books were sent to New York City for auction as rebel property. Public outcry in the North was so fervent that Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase intervened, saying, "The Union does not make war on libraries."

Image: Is the official handbill for the auction of “rebel property” (i.e., the books of the Beaufort Library Society) that was reproduced with permission from The State newspaper magazine issue of March 20, 1955.


Smithsonian on Fire

The books were then stored in the Smithsonian Institution for eventual return to Beaufort at the war's end. However, on January 24, 1865 a fire consumed the wing in the Smithsonian Institution where Beaufort's confiscated books had been stored. The collection is destroyed.


Beaufort was to be without a library until 1902 and without a permanent library building until 1918 when the Beaufort Township Library opened.


Clover Club establishes first circulating library

The Clover Club, a local women's literary and musical group of less than 30 members, was founded in 1891 by Mary Elizabeth Waterhouse. On February 4, 1902, in the 100th anniversary year of the founding of the Beaufort Library Society, the women began a small subscription circulating library. The women's group bought the books as well as served as volunteer librarians. The circulating library was open only a few hours a week and had no permanent base of operations.


The Great Fire of 1907

At the time of the Fire of 1907, the Clover Club's library collection shared the Scheper building on Bay Street with the Masonic Lodges. The fire devastated much of downtown Beaufort. According to one observer: "Soon the whole structure was ablaze, and then the hope of saving surrounding property was lessened, but the work went on. Much of the Clover Club furniture and library appurtenances on the second floor were destroyed, and everything on the third floor, occupied by Harmony Lodge, A. F. M., and Rabboni Chapter, R. A. M., and in which were the handsome furniture and regalia of the two Masonic bodies, fed the flames.” Although the Masonic Building housing the Clover Club library was destroyed, all but fifty of the books were saved due to the heroics of the community. The Library reopened at another location less than a week after the conflagration.


Image is from Clover Club Scrapbook #1, Beaufort District Collection.


Female Benevolent Society

The building of the Female Benevolent Society at 301 Scott Street housed the Clover Club Library from 1910-1917.


Public Library Building Proposed

At the Clover Club's 20th anniversary meeting in 1911, the ladies realized a need for a permanent library building and undertook to raise a building fund to meet the requirements of steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie.  Carnegie donated more than $40 million of his personal fortune towards 1,679 new library buildings in communities large and small across America. Carnegie believed that "the community which is not willing to maintain a Library had better not possess it" and thus required a local contribution. He built 14 Carnegie Libraries in South Carolina, including the Beaufort Township Library.