February 17, 2018

St. Helena Branch Library | New Landmark Libraries 2015 Winner


Culture Woven Through

St. Helena Branch Library | Beaufort County Library | St. Helena Island, South Carolina
ARCHITECT: Liollio Architecture


OPENED: 2012
COST: $7.35 million
GOAL: LEED Silver Certification

A visitor to the St. Helena Branch Library, SC, can see the past, present, and future of the community it serves translated through this tremendously thoughtful and respectfully designed facility.

The library is modern, warm, and highly responsive to the distinctive aspects of the Gullah-Geechee and Sea Island cultures in which it is embedded.

A sign welcomes visitors to the library in traditional island Gullah, “We be glad fa see oonah,” which translates to, “We are glad to see you.”

The architectural team employed a cultural anthropologist and conducted community workshops so that the building could make “subtle and sincere references to a unique people and place.” At the very first community workshop, disposable cameras were distributed to attendees, who were asked to “photograph what was important to them” to help inform the design team. The result is a library of which to be proud.

The Gullah Geechee Collection room pays tribute to that uniqueness. Located in the center of the building, it is a “nautilus” constructed of a bamboo basket weave membrane over wooden rib and beam ship construction framing. The pavilion structure is representative of the live oaks that once sheltered school children; a raised wood “stomping” floor in the community room provides the percussion for Sea Island spirituals.

This ode to the history of the community is preserved for the future with sustainable design elements. Slated for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design for New Construction (LEED-NC) Silver certification, the building uses 25 percent less energy than a standard building and 37 percent less water. The natural materials used to build and finish the interior represent the colors and textures of the island they are durable and fit in with the nearby Penn Center.


Integrated into the historic Penn Center Campus on St. Helena Island, the library is next to the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed enslaved people. The Penn School is the oldest example of the Port Royal Experiment, an effort to prepare the former slaves of the South Carolina Sea Islands to be free citizens in American public life. The campus was designated a National Historic District Landmark in 1974 and is noted as one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today.

The library complements this connection to the history of the community and to nature with forward-thinking applications of technology: a drive-through book drop connected by a conveyor belt brings items to the RFID sorting system, and the Mac lab includes a 3-D printer—the first access to such technology on the island and in the library system, which serves the area in and around the islands off the South Carolina coast with five locations, including its headquarters in ­Beaufort.

The county recognized an opportunity when the Penn Center donated the land for the library and concurrently planned a health center to serve the community as part of the master plan. These two projects—their strategies and shared infrastructure—helped to develop a community hub for the island.

A good library puts the community first in decision-making. A great library not only embraces the community but becomes integral to its social fabric. The St. Helena Branch Library is a testament to the importance of public libraries as cultural icons, beacons of hope, and community landmarks. (For more on this library, see “A Local Library” by Michele Nicole Johnson in the Fall 2014 Library by Design, p. 23.)—Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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