The Daily Gamecock

South Caroliniana Library renovates to protect state's past

There is nowhere on campus quite like the Caroliniana Library. 

The structure was designed in 1838 by Robert Mills, the architectural mind behind the Washington Monument and the Bull Street Asylum, was completed in 1840. Caroliniana was the first free-standing undergraduate library in the country and currently holds the largest collection of state-specific archives in South Carolina. The reading room at the top of the stairs is a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s at the Library of Congress and the wings hold five floors of wall to wall manuscripts, books, newspapers, newspaper and other two dimensional ephemera. 

Caroliniana is a place that houses the history of the people of South Carolina, both political and personal. It has records of travel letters, diaries and telegrams kept by the people of the state, as well as hundreds of photographs, family bibles, broadsides for traveling circuses and local vendors.

Moreover, it holds the history of the university itself. The personal papers of university presidents are kept in the Caroliniana as well as issues of the Garnet and Black yearbook, handbooks from Student Government's inaugural year and Donald Russell's speech notes advocating for a student union and exams that date back to 1854.

Family papers (thousands of feet of them) in Caroliniana document wartime tales from the South Pacific, bucolic letters from traveling sons and daughters and appeals to state government from dissatisfied citizens. Perhaps the most-viewed collection in the building (aside from the all-encompassing geological records) is the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers Project, which documented hundreds of oral histories, former slave narratives and other folklore traditions of the state. 

And this year the Caroliniana will celebrate its 175th anniversary. 

Henry Fulmer, Director of Caroliniana, has been with the university since the 1970s. According to Fulmer, the library was located behind the original wall that surrounds the historic Horseshoe and was used as a hospital during the burning of Columbia in 1865.

“It’s unique to realize that we connect on this campus to American history,” Fulmer said. “Everything in here is a treasure. This truly is the library of the state of South Carolina.” 

It remained the university’s library until 1940, when former university president, J. Rion McKissick ordered a new structure (now the McKissick Museum) to be built at the head of the Horseshoe. To this day, the library receives a steady stream of research traffic from students, historical researchers and international visitors. 

Currently, Caroliniana is closed to the public as the university begins renovations to fix standing problems with the building's infrastructure. The books, letters and other printed material are being transferred to off-site annexes during the renovations.

Until March, the books will remain in three off-site locations where they will be housed to ensure their protection — the library annex in North East Columbia, the Graniteville Room in Thomas Cooper and the old South Carolina State Archives building.

The library is set to re-open the first week of March, but with some noticeable changes. According to Fulmer, books will have to be requested from the off-site archives in advance of visits. Twice daily, trucks will deliver from these off-site areas to the Caroliniana, and the materials will be returned at the end of the day. 

“The schedule for using the collection will be a bit different. It’s as if you have a public library that has no books on the shelves,” Fulmer said. “The materials will have to all be brought back from remote storage.”

It's sort of like a Popemobile for South Carolina's most-valued documents.

“We’re in the process of moving the collection from the building. These are materials that are published, unpublished, visual materials, university archives,” Fulmer said. “Basically everything that is in the building that is unique and irreplaceable, which is the line-share of the collection.”

When the wings were built in 1927, they did not provide the adequate storage requirements that were necessary for storing the types of materials that Fulmer deals with in the South Caroliniana. 

“There is no acceptable level of climate control, humidity control, in that space,” he said, regarding the wings where most of the books are stored. “The materials have different storage requirements from those that are most comfortable to people.”

The manuscripts prefer a cool space with drier air, usually a tad less than room temperature with 35 percent humidity. They do best in a dimly-lit space with a steady circulation of clean air. In other words, they're high maintenance. 

“We’re trying to store artifacts, not in the way of museum artifacts, but original, irreplaceable manuscript items, in shelving that was meant to house regular book collections,” Fulmer said.

It's been 175 years, so what brought about these changes now?

Fulmer recognized that the materials within the library were not being properly cared for and suffering as a result. The Caroliniana's staff found themselves worried about other disasters that could befall the library, as well, especially in a year celebrating the 150th anniversary of Columbia's burning.

“Coming to understand the irreplaceable nature of the collection, there certainly have been concerns about potential for fire,” Fulmer said. “We’ve been quite lucky in not having any type of disaster of that sort. But, without adequate fire protection and suppression, it’s a matter of time ultimately. The probability is against us.”


Trending Now

Send a Tip Get Our Email Editions