The Charleston Library Society is the third-oldest institutional library in the United States. On December 28, 1748, a group of Charlestonians met to establish a private subscription library to support education and the arts and sciences. The society secured a charter of incorporation in 1755 and established a tradition in which the colony’s royal governors were society presidents. This tradition lasted until the Revolutionary War. By 1778 the society’s book and periodical collection numbered five thousand volumes. Society members promoted a colonial college in 1770 that eventually became the College of Charleston. Three years later, in 1773, the society started a natural science collection that became the Charleston Museum.
The Charleston fire of 1778 destroyed all but a handful of the society’s books. In 1863 the society’s librarian sent one-half of the library’s collections to Columbia, but they were destroyed there in 1865. In 1874 Charleston’s Apprentice Library Society (founded in 1824) and the Library Society merged their resources. When the South Carolina Jockey Club disbanded in 1900, it transferred its property to the Library Society. The society sold the Washington Racecourse and established an endowment that has continued to provide revenue into the twenty-first century. In 1914 the society constructed a new building at 164 King Street. Eighty-two years later, in 1996, the society expanded into a large adjacent building, which houses a children’s reading room, audio and video collections, and offices.
Among the collections of the Charleston Library Society are rare books, pamphlets, a manuscript collection, and the society’s records. The most significant collection is the society’s newspaper files, which contain the world’s largest and most complete collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century Charleston newspapers. Society members have free access to the collections, including its circulating library, and nonmembers pay a daily research fee.
Porcher, Elizabeth L. The History of the Charleston Library Society. New York: Elizabethan Press, 1931.
Raven, James. London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748–1811. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.