LEDE SC State Library

A person approaches the South Carolina State Library on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Columbia. The agency is the primary administrator of federal and state support for the state's libraries and celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — Few states can claim a library history as interesting as South Carolina's.

That's the case that Estellene P. Walker, the late longtime library advocate and first-ever director of the South Carolina State Library, made in a 1981 account of the state's storied book-sharing history. 

“They have suffered the natural disasters of earthquake, hurricane and flood; they have been the object of enemy attack, have been invaded, captured and carried off into captivity. ... But always, wherever they have existed, they have been used and loved by South Carolinians," she wrote in her account, "So Good and Necessary a Work." 

pc-101419-ne-statelibrary

Estellene P. Walker sits at her desk for the State Library Board as executive secretary. Provided/South Carolina State Library

Though South Carolina was likely home to the first publicly supported library in the nation, statewide public library service — meaning all 46 counties had established library systems — wasn't achieved until centuries later, in 1976. 

This fall, the state's library celebrates its 50th anniversary, both as a physical building and as an institution. 

The S.C. General Assembly redesignated what was the South Carolina State Library Board as the South Carolina State Library in 1969. With the new distinction came state funding to build up its collection, a first-ever physical headquarters and assurance that even the most underserved parts of the state would have access to libraries. 

'So Good and Necessary a Work'

Though the current library system has reached the half-century mark, library history in South Carolina predates the Revolutionary War. What was possibly the first publicly supported library in the nation was established in Charleston in 1698, according to Walker's account.  

SC State Library

Historic items are displayed at the South Carolina State Library on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Columbia. The agency is the primary administrator of federal and state support for the state's libraries and celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Sean Rayford/Special to the Post and Courier 

Fewer than 30 years after the Charles Towne settlement was founded, government journals start referencing a shared and publicly funded collection of books and other materials. Seven copies of a catalog of the library's inventory were due every Nov. 5, according to General Assembly records. 

"The rules for the library were carefully worked out and they were stringent. Heavy penalties were exacted for loss or damage to the books," Walker wrote.

Then in 1748, the Charles Town Library Society, an organization that still exists today as the Charleston Library Society, was founded to raise funds to expand the library's collection. 

In the decades that followed, the library society model spread to other parts of the state, but only the library collections in Charleston and Georgetown survived the Civil War. 

There were "sporadic efforts" to revive other libraries, but a lack of money stalled them. Substantial progress wasn't made again until the early 1900s, when women's clubs made it their mission to open small, volunteer-led collections in communities around the state. 

The General Assembly authorized the South Carolina State Library Board in 1929, right around the start of the Great Depression. No funds were appropriated to it, but grants allowed the board to send a field agent around the state to aid communities trying to start their own libraries. 

Then, in 1935, the Works Progress Administration launched a public library project that brought bookmobile service to 23 rural counties. Before the WPA program, only three counties had county-wide library service. There were 21 counties without a public library at all, according to Walker. 

The work of spreading library services continued well after the WPA was disbanded, largely led by women like Walker and Mary E. Frayser, a Winthrop University professor and longtime library advocate.

Library board members and volunteers would sometimes drive across the state, recruiting people to staff libraries and drumming up interest in founding new branches. A 1964 photo from the State Library archives shows three women smiling in front of a car stamped with "Library Recruiting Caravan." 

Less than a decade after the S.C. State Library was designated, every county in South Carolina had a public library system. 

pc-101419-ne-statelibrary-SCSL_Building_Collection_016.jpg

Guests attend the opening ceremony with Gov. Robert E. McNair at the South Carolina State Library at 1500 Senate St. in February 1970. The building was completed in the fall of 1969. Provided/ South Carolina State Library

A grand opening

A 60,000-square-foot building of reinforced concrete was constructed at the corner of Senate and Bull streets in downtown Columbia to house the S.C. State Library collection and offices. From the outside, it looks about the same now as it did 50 years ago, rising several stories high with two unseen basement levels holding documents below. 

Out front, two bronze lion statues were installed to stand guard in front of the new building. The lions came from a winter resort in Camden, called the Court Inn. The resort closed in the 1940s and was later demolished.

In their second home at the State Library, the lions were named for two state politicians. On the west side is Sol, for Solomon Blatt, a former Speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives. Edgar stands on the opposite side, named for a former S.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Edgar Brown.

The building's grand opening and ribbon cutting was held that February.

Images from the celebration, which show a throng of visitors packed onto the building's paved plaza, are now featured in a virtual timeline of the library's history, which digitization specialist Kerry Jeyschune researched and created using the library's archives. 

Jeyschune spent several months sifting through photos and reading every annual report she could find, even dating back to the State Library Board days, from 1929 through 2008.

"It's so vast," she said of the collection. "We're almost like a museum, but you can actually read and hold these things."  

pc-101419-ne-statelibrary-SCSL_Photograph_Collection_017.jpg

An intern reads to a child for the South Carolina State Library Board Junior Intern Program. Provided/South Carolina State Library

Your library's library

The S.C. State Library is "your library's library," said executive director Leesa Aiken. 

Rare books are kept in special cases on one floor. Federal documents are stored on one of the lower levels. Another floor houses the collection for Talking Book Services, which provides custom-made talking books with braille inscriptions to blind patrons around the state. 

The State Library keeps, creates and distributes kits that local branches use to host free programs. Aiken, who has been with the library for about 12 years, said she remembers when they had just three kits. Now they loan out 96, ranging from a virtual reality set to programming on NASA. 

On its virtual shelves, more than 21,000 documents have been added over the last five years as part of a major digitization effort, Aiken said.

The Columbia headquarters acts as the state's document depository, meaning every report from every state agency is cataloged there. And although reports are published and available online now, the library contains physical copies of everything, which the public can view by visiting the library in person. 

The records well predate the State Library's existence, too. One of the oldest records Aiken pulled out on a recent search was a book of laws from the S.C. General Assembly printed in 1862. 

There's room for all of them, Aiken said, partly because the State Library's book collection isn't as big as it used to be. The collection used to include every kind of volume you'd expect to find in a local library — cookbooks, children's books, popular novels — to loan to newly opened South Carolina libraries. 

Some communities would have enough seed money to build the library structure but needed more time to raise the funds to purchase books. In the interim, the State Library's collection would fill the new shelves. 

That's not needed as much anymore, Aiken said, so the collection is smaller.

Adaptability is in the DNA of public libraries, Aiken explained. During the Great Recession, the state's libraries started workforce development programs. In 2015, when record-breaking rains created a 1,000-year flood, one branch used its bookmobile to help bring tetanus shots to people. 

"People know to go to the library," Aiken said. "They don't necessarily know where to go, but they know the library is going to help them." 

Libraries are about having access, Aiken said, regardless of a person's age or address. Walker wrote about that access, too, in her history, which Aiken keeps on a shelf in her office:

"Wherever you are and whoever you are, you are never far from public library service in South Carolina." 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.


Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.