HomeArts & LitCharleston Celebrates Oldest Library in the South

Charleston Celebrates Oldest Library in the South

The Charleston Library Society marks 100 years in its Beaux Arts style building downtown on King Street. 

Book lovers in the 1740s were on their own when it came to finding reading material. If you were wealthy, you became friends with a bookseller and created your own private library in the vein of Thomas Jefferson. If you weren’t so wealthy, maybe you pooled your resources with a few friends and formed a library society. At least that’s what 19 Charlestonians did in 1748.

The Charleston Library Society predates the idea of public libraries and first consisted of volumes of reading material that moved from house to house. “I can certainly envision some wife finally saying I don’t need people traipsing in and out,” says Director Anne Cleveland. That most likely explains the library society’s move to the packing floor of a local liquor warehouse 10 years later. Cleveland says this probably increased foot traffic, but it also meant the collection was less protected. When fire broke out in the warehouse in 1778, most of the holdings were lost.

The society would not be deterred. Members rebuilt volume by volume and moved from the Statehouse to the Bank of South Carolina building before finally getting a home of their own at 164 King Street. “Within a year, the membership of the library society grew from 19 to 160 and it became the leading cultural, social, intellectual society in Charleston,” continues Cleveland.

libsocbooksToday, the society is about 2,200 members strong, and this year celebrates a century in its Beaux Arts style building right past the intersection of King and Queen streets. It is also one of only 16 membership libraries left in the country (the second-oldest among them) and the oldest cultural institution in the South. If that’s not enough, the society paved the way for the founding of the College of Charleston in 1770 and provided the core collection of natural history artifacts for the founding of the Charleston Museum — the first museum in America — in 1773.

Back in its founding days, membership in the society was so steep that it was estimated to have taken the average person 15 years to pay off the initiation fee. Now, the library has more of an open door policy, with memberships starting at $100 and $50 for students. “We welcome anybody who wants to embrace the whole concept of a neat little historical library,” says Cleveland. “We still have circulating books and movies, all the things that you would get at at typical library, but we have the benefit of having 267 years worth accumulation of amazing treasures.”

One of her favorite holdings is one of the four remaining copies of the 1669 Fundamental Constitution for Carolina by John Locke, which tempted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to drop everything and visit the society when she was in town four years ago. Cleveland managed to get her a digital copy and brought her back to town for a program in February. There’s also the 1801 letter from John Marshall written to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney the day he swore in Thomas Jefferson that was found in a box about three years ago. Marshall says he hopes that Jefferson’s going to be a more moderate person than the extremes of the Democratic party and calls the Democrats “speculative theorists or absolute terrorists.”

Other significant holdings include DuBose Heyward’s handwritten manuscript for Porgy, the the largest collection of colonial newspapers dating back to 1732 in the country and plenty of Confederate memorabilia. While most Charlestonians come to the library for chamber music, lectures, classes or children’s camps, Cleveland says there are patrons who stop by each morning, have a cup of coffee, read the newspaper and then head off to start their day.

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The society’s anniversary celebration kicks off Friday with a sold-out event to pay tribute to Dick Jenrette, a legend in the world of preservation responsible for the Mills House Hotel and the Roper House. Cleveland says members and library lovers can also look forward to special events throughout the rest of the year, including tours of private libraries around town. The society will also be focusing on cataloguing its collection and making sure the building lasts for another hundred years.

“In the forties, the balustrades up on the roof of the building had rotted out and they’ve been gone since,” explains Cleveland. “We are going to reinstall them to bring the building back to its glory.” 

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