A Library Legacy
by Denise Milanese Photography by Christian Lee
Mary Jo Berkes
A Library Legacy
The Hilton Head Branch of the Beaufort County Library System is set back from Beach City Road in a beautiful setting of dappled sunlight and elegant bronze sculpture. As I enter I immediately see the Friends of the Library used bookstore. The generous donations of previously read books from library patrons and members of the Friends provide much needed extra revenue to support the library’s many programs.
Mary Jo Berkes strides toward me across the library floor. She is clearly in her element scanning the open space as she moves confidently, monitoring for any matter that might need her attention later. I am surprised by her youthful appearance as she smiles and shakes my hand firmly. This is not the librarian of stereotypical lore. This assured, blonde, dynamo steps out briskly stating, “I’d like to start by giving you the tour.” As we walk the perimeter of the airy, contemporary space, the large windows and comfortable furnishings encourage a peaceful contemplative sensibility. Mary Jo narrates the tour. “This building was completed in 1998 after we outgrew the original Hilton Head branch, which opened in 1976.”
Mary Jo has watched over her charge as head librarian for 18 years, through change so rapid-fire, it would leave a teenager breathless and confused. The new building originally held only eight computers for public use. Now it offers 30 workstations, with an appointment system to insure Internet access is shared fairly.
We begin the tour around the perimeter of the facility in a reading area furnished with comfy armchairs, which encourage leisurely perusal of the daily newspapers and current magazines. There are adjacent private study rooms, each equipped with a computer, and the Carolina Room, which is a designated quiet space. Everywhere the walls are graced with beautiful images and sculpture all donated to the library by its talented and grateful citizens. There is also an art gallery where local artists can display their work for sale and increase their exposure in the community. As Mary Jo and I continue our circuit, she shares, “We are in the planning stages with the Land Trust to develop a nature trail and create an outdoor classroom where everyone from school children to seniors can learn about and be inspired by our spectacular Lowcountry ecology.” She is clearly excited about the concept.
Right next to the local history section is a table containing an old microfiche reader and a phalanx of file cabinets labelled “Island Packet 1976-1978, Island Packet 1979-1980 …” For the uninitiated, microfiche is a specialized film medium used to save space and preserve the content of historical materials, such as newspapers and magazines, which are a uniquely informative primary source research tools. “The Packet was just a two page newspaper back then,” Mary Jo explains. “My understanding is that one of the staff from the county library system is working on a project to digitize the content.” It’s a race to develop a plan before the ancient microfiche reader can illuminate no more and scrolls its last roll of ‘fiche. If that happens an irreplaceable local historical archive will be lost forever.
The Hilton Head library is “All about Service!” Mary Jo says. “We adapt to the needs of our patrons.” Whether it’s a book club offered at the Senior Center or the story hours held for children, they nimbly pivot to meet the needs of the community. Last year they welcomed an 80-year-old Wyoming cowboy, who was riding around the country to raise awareness about childhood hunger. And yes, he did hitch his horse to the flagpole while he took advantage of the library’s free Wi-Fi.
The library’s myriad of free programs offer presentations covering subjects from health and wellness; diet and nutrition, Fit over 50, and yoga; to knitting, navigating computers and surfing the web. During snowbird season from January to March the attendance at these popular events can swell to more than 100.
Interacting directly with the library’s patrons is still Mary Jo’s favorite part of her job. “I get a good feeling when I find an answer to a particularly in depth research question,” she says. That’s the sign of a true librarian—one who finds satisfaction in providing answers that can’t be found anywhere else.
Education: Master’s degree in Library Science, with a Bachelor’s degree in Education, from the University of Georgia.
Came to HHI from: Atlanta in 1980 for her husband’s job
Not first, BUT second: Her daughter was the second baby born at Hilton Head Hospital.
First Pick: Mary Jo picked tomatoes at Ulmer’s Farm to sell at Sea Pines when she first arrived.
Support Your Library: Learn how the Friends of the Hilton Head Library support library resources at