The mission of the Georgetown County Library is “to serve as a community resource that expands and enriches the lives of residents by providing and promoting the use of the library system’s information, education, and recreation resources.” Through its actions, the public library now shows itself as an innovator for its citizens. It also serves well as a community partner that actively advocates and collaborates for the betterment of all through superior services and programming. It has registered 70% of the county’s people as library users, but historically, that openly dynamic, populist focus has evolved gradually over time.
Until 1861, Georgetown County existed as the nation’s principal rice growing area. It was the place in South Carolina – for 50 preceding years – with the highest percentage of enslaved persons: over 90% of the population was in bondage. The library mirrored those facts. Founded in 1799, this institution functioned then as an exclusive library joint-stock company serving an elite group of 50 rice planters and merchants.
Together they owned 5,000 to 10,000 volumes bought by a Committee of Correspondence and Purchase mainly from London, Edinburgh, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Donations were also presented to the society by the likes of Vice President Aaron Burr. In the 1850s, ownership of the library was transferred from the Library Society to the Winyah Indigo Society. Today, the collection’s core endures along with its original records in the Georgetown County Library’s archives.
Georgetown County was occupied by federal troops at the end of the Civil War in 1865. The library was used as a hospital recovery center. When the soldiers departed, so did a number of the books. The Audubon folios were never recovered, but years later, a former war veteran from Ohio returned a letter written to the community by President George Washington. During Reconstruction, although the district elected the first African American to the United States House of Representatives, the library remained under the Winyah Indigo Society. It was used by the Society’s member and by a related private school. Towards the 19th Century’s end, Jim Crow laws swept the state effectively denying library services to blacks. At the same time, a series of Katrina-like hurricanes destroyed the rice fields. Both blacks and whites endured much economic deprivation, and the library suffered great neglect.
Happily for Georgetown County, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland had an accident here while duck hunting. A stiff gale tossed him from a hunter’s skiff. Resulting national news of the rescue alerted wealthy Northerners to the county’s natural beauty and wildlife. They purchased the now defunct plantations. During decades of upgrading these old estates, they sustained much of the local economy. In addition, timber companies moved into the area. By the 1920s, the old library had rebounded somewhat and circulated books until 1938.
When the Great Depression hit, the W.P.A. created a public library of about 6,000 books, but when WWII commenced, the W.P.A. left taking all books with them. The war, itself, brought much prosperity, since local mills packaged rations for overseas troops. The good times continued in the 1950s when the county decided to fund the public library and to renovate a former jail for it. Bookmobile service was established. Professional staff was hired, and the library was opened in the 1960s to all citizens due to advances in the Civil Rights Era.
In 1989, the citizens made a huge investment in library resources with three new buildings in Georgetown, Andrews, and the Waccamaw Neck. In 2006, a fourth was added in the Carvers Bay area. In 2010 and 2011, the libraries in Georgetown and Andrews were expanded with a history center and a computer literacy area respectively.
As for awards, in 2000, the institution became the only public library nationwide named as a Local Legacy by the Library of Congress. In 2003, it received the first County’s Care for Kids Award by the National Association of Counties. In May 2006, it helped win the first-place Health Information Award for Libraries from the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. During August 2006, WebJunction named Carvers Bay as the Library of the Month. In January 2007, Carvers Bay was one of four libraries featured by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a short documentary on advocacy and innovation. In January 2008, the Georgetown County Library became the first SC institution to be awarded at the White House in Washington, DC, a National Medal for Library Service. With innovative services for all, the Georgetown County Library now fully reflects the best of America’s character.