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Why St. Helena library — prettiest in SC — might also be the coolest

By Stephen Fastenau, Beaufort Gazette

Just out the back door of South Carolina’s prettiest library, floor-to-ceiling windows lead to a covered patio with an amphitheater feel.

People often come to the quiet space at the St. Helena library just to eat lunch. But it will also host a music festival — bands playing just outside the doors of a place where whispers are thought to be the only acceptable form of communication.

But this new library isn’t a throwback. The $11 million building opened not only with a sleek look recognized with multiple design awards, but also with some pretty darn cool technology to serve a rural area in need of its resources.

And reflected in its designs are nods to the area’s Gullah culture and Sea Island history. The library was built on land previously owned by Penn Center and is only a four-minute walk from the campus.

One woman cried when she first walked into the building, branch manager Maria Benac said. People drive from as far away as Walterboro to use the library.

Still, library staff work to spread the word about their newest facility.

“We really have to make people want to come here,” Beaufort County libraries director Ray McBride said. “We have everything we need — all of the resources — we just have to make people come here. “You can’t walk here. You have to come here for a reason.”

There are plenty of draws.

The building is pretty, yes, but here is a look at why the library is also among the coolest in the state.


Benac flipped the lights in a library lab and illuminated Apple computers, a large black telescope and other gadgets needing explanation.

In the lab, children 8 and older can scan objects on a digitizer and print them on a three-dimensional printer. An Embry-Riddle graduate student created a working gear.

An orange wrench, blue teapot and series of letters also rested near the machine. The telescope has the ability to record, and Benac plans to capture the next eclipse. Broadcast-quality cameras are stored in a closet.

Nonprofit food pantry Second Helpings used the library equipment to shoot and edit and a commercial. In addition to the cameras and video software, the library offered lighting, boom microphones and a green screen.

The lab also includes the ability to create stop-motion animation, circuit boards, Raspberry Pi devices for teaching coding and a tablet connected to one of the Macintosh computers used for graphic design. A College of Charleston graphic design student from St. Helena Island used the tablet to create an advertisement for a smartphone app. Another computer lab offers classes in Microsoft Office, photo editing and coding.

An audio lab is used to record a library podcast, Must-Read, which has been downloaded more than 150,000 times.


The Gullah culture is reflected throughout the library.

A large, circular enclosure in the center of the library made of pine and bamboo is known as the Gullah-Geechee room. There, nearby residents can trace their African lineage.

In December, the library will host Gullah Night on the Town for the fifth year. The event celebrates the holiday season in the tradition of a different country of origin each year.

A Gullah-Geechee consortium will be held Sept. 7 and will include presentations from local authors.

Bamboo flooring in the library’s large community room allows for stomping to accompany traditional Gullah music. Panels on the wall can hold art displays.

The library is also the starting point for tours of nearby Fort Fremont. A large diorama dominates an area near the Gullah-Geechee room and shows how the compound was laid out.


More than 300 people, including Benac, participated in the public process of crafting the look of the St. Helena library.

The Sea Islands and Gullah culture are reflected heavily in architect Angela Brose’s final design. Shiny tiles form a rolling wave pattern in the ceiling of a conference room, and waves are also reflected in hallway benches. Sweetgrass is embedded in acrylic partitions meant to keep children contained in their section of the library.

When the design was being contemplated, the library’s youth services director told Brose the look should inspire children to want to feel that the sky is the limit to what they can learn.

And so the lights in the ceiling are shaped like clouds. The circulation desk is in the form of a boat.

The library includes separate soundproof rooms for small children and teenagers. The Ninentedo Wii in the teens’ room is often used by older library patrons as well.

A flower garden is in full few of one seating area, and various offices offer opportunities for quiet.

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen

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