Many visit their local library to check out a copy of the latest novel, bring their children to story time or borrow a DVD.
But the Beaufort County library system fulfills another mission with a special history collection.
Created in 1992, the Beaufort District Collection preserves and makes accessible resources that chronicle the area's heritage. Written history of the Beaufort District -- including Beaufort County, as well as parts of present-day Hampton, Jasper and Allendale counties -- spans more than 400 years.
"It's pure history," said Bill Culp, a Bay Street resident who has helped maintain the collection as a volunteer for about seven years. "The thing about it that is so neat is it has something for anybody who's interested in the history of this area, regardless of which side of fence you're on -- whether you're a Yankee or a Rebel."
The collection includes more than 6,000 catalogued materials, such as books, diaries, letters, photographs and maps. Some can be traced to Beaufort's earliest libraries, such as the circulating library established by the Clover Club in the early 1900s.
Historic-resources coordinator Grace Morris Cordial guesses there may be two or three times as many items that are not catalogued. That's because some entire collections -- such as hundreds of photographs by a single photographer -- might only be listed as one item, she said.
Cordial and library staff are taking a more complete inventory as they relocate the Beaufort District Collection to the second floor of the Beaufort library on Scott Street.
The collection outgrew its current space on the first floor. Boxes and files were stacked high on tables and shelves, making it difficult for residents to browse. The lack of space limited the number of new materials the collection could accept.
The new location will offer more than twice the space and specialized compact shelving in a climate-controlled environment, said director of libraries Wlodek Zaryczny . The collection's research room is closed through September for relocation, but online versions of some items are still available on the library's website at www.beaufortcountylibrary.org.
A COLLECTION OF TREASURES
Cordial said local people and tourists visit the collection's research room daily, and others call for help and use the virtual resources.
Authors settle in to find local color for novels, and middle-schoolers work on class projects, she said. University students use the materials for their dissertations, and many come to research ancestors.
Choosing just a few "jewels" from the collection would be impossible because materials appeal to people in so many ways, Cordial said. She's helped people find where an ancestor is buried and use telephone directories to find where relatives once lived.
"A 1957 telephone directory, to you, might be a treasure," she said. "To someone else, it's a piece of junk."
St. Helena resident Colin Brooker, a preservation architect, has been visiting the collection for about a dozen years as part of his efforts to preserve historic buildings and find future uses for them. He said some of the rarest items are old photographs, some dating to the 1860s. He examined images of Bay Street to trace the history of buildings, such as one that now houses Saltus River Grill and another that houses George O'Kelley's law firm.
"It's remarkable how much you can extract from the photographs," he said.
Julie Zachowski, a former director of the library system, said a Mills' Atlas from 1825 is a piece she treasures. It was returned to Beaufort after being discovered in the estate of a doctor in Michigan who served with the Union army, she said.
Union troops confiscated materials from an early Beaufort library during the Civil War and sent them to New York. The books were to be stored until the end of the war, but a fire destroyed the collection. She guesses the atlas wasn't destroyed because troops found the maps useful and kept it with them.
"That's why the atlas is such a treat," she said. "It's one of the few things left from the library from before the Civil War."
Culp said his favorite parts of the collection are the books, both fiction and nonfiction. Pat Conroy's novels are among the most well-known, but he said the collection is home to many more.
"It has without question the most extensive collection of books that deal with everything from culture to politics to genealogy to history of families in the Beaufort area to church directories," he said. "They go into some of the things that might have happened or probably happened in the Beaufort area during various times of history."
Jody Henson, who attended high school in Beaufort and moved back to the area about nine years ago, volunteered as a docent and reviewed the collection's hundreds of vertical files on important topics.
Through his work, he learned about the life and death of the last member of the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery and an ancestor who surrendered at the Appomattox Court House.
One of his most meaningful finds came while researching the Battle of Port Royal Island. He found a list of casualties, and one of his wife's ancestors, Lt. Benjamin Wilkins, was on it. The find led to a new grave marker for the Revolutionary War soldier, who was buried in the graveyard of Beaufort's Parish Church of St. Helena.
"I would think that anyone who wanted to know a little more about Beaufort, you could grab any one of the folders and learn even more than you wanted to," Henson said.