Charleston scored another historic first last week, when the city welcomed the first gathering of about 20 directors from regional study institutes across the country.

Bob Brinkmeyer, director of the University of South Carolina's Institute for Southern Studies, hosted the symposium, which discussed topics specific to the South, the West, New England and the Midwest and explored common themes from each.

The first of these regional institutes were formed about 30 to 40 years ago - USC's was created about two decades ago - to focus on their unique history, literature, environment and culture.

"America is a nation where regions have been extremely important throughout its history," Brinkmeyer said, "so regional centers grew out of a response that the nation was more complex than just the national mythology or the national identity. ... It's basically an affirmation that a sense of place does matter."

Further complicating matters is this: Each of the United States' main regions have their own subregions, such as South Carolina's Lowcountry, Upstate and Grand Strand- or Louisiana's Cajun country or the Mississippi Delta.

While regional institutes are relatively new, there are emerging forces, such as the Internet, that are eroding regional identities

"We're always going to have a South. We're always going to have a West, but clearly there's a blurring," Brinkmeyer said, adding that he often asks his students what they value more: a strong sense of place or cyberspace?

"For most students, cyberspace is more important, on a day to day basis," he said."There is a declining sense that one's identity is rooted in place. Americans are very mobile. They move every three to four years, on average."

The goal of regional studies not only is exploring an area's unique history but also to think critically about how it can improve, he said, adding, "Southern identify is not merely just a worshipping of the past. We can construct a better South and a better place by thinking about it more."

When the symposium concluded late Friday, the attendees already were talking about how they would like to get together again in a year or two.

Brinkmeyer said the Charleston conference was mainly about getting institute directors to get to know each other, "and the next time it will be more designed around an issue, like regionalism and globalism or how we define regions today."

Ultimately, he said he will know in about a year if the symposium was a success because it will be clear then how much dialogue and exchange it helped bring about.

"I really do think that one of the best ways to understand your region is to compare it to another one," he said.