Charleston Library Society

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The Library Society's first permanent address, which it occupied from 1792 to 1835, was within what is now the Charleston County Courthouse at 82 Broad St.
The Library Society was located at 50 Broad St. from 1835 to 1914.
The Library Society has been located at 164 King St. since 1914.
The Library Society has expanded into an adjacent building at 160 King St. starting in 1992.

Charleston Library Society, founded in 1748, is a subscription library in Charleston, South Carolina.

The library is the third oldest subscription library in the United States after the Library Company of Philadelphia (founded 1731 by Benjamin Franklin) and the Redwood Library and Athenaeum of Newport, Rhode Island (1747). The Charleston Library was founded before The Providence Athenaeum (1753), the New York Society Library (1754), and the Boston Athenaeum (1807).


On June 13, 1748 a group of seventeen gentlemen from Charleston organized to begin purchasing current periodicals from England. The founders were Alexander Baron; Samuel Brailsford; Robert Brisbane; William Burrows; John Cooper; Paul Douxsaint; James Grindlay; William Logan; Alexander McCauley; Patrick McKie; Thomas Middleton; John Neufville, Jr.; Thomas Sacheverel; John Sinclair; Paul Stevenson; Peter Timothy; Joseph Wragg, Jr.; and Samuel Wragg, Jr.[1] The men each contributed ten pounds sterling to the enterprise.[2] The mission expanded quickly, and by December 1748, the group had decided to acquire books as well.

The group attempted to secure a charter for their organization, and twice such a measure was adopted by the Colonial Assembly. Both times, however, the Governor refused to sign the bill. Aid from the Royal government in London was refused, and the Society stopped its activities temporarily. Eventually, though, in 1754, after having added other members, they acquired a charter under the name the Charles Town Library Society.[3] Governor Glen signed the bill, and the Crown ratified it in 1755.[4]

In 1759, the Society began investigating the possibility of creating an educational institution in connection with its mission. Starting in 1759, the Society laid aside money each year to establish such an institution. The Society accumulated about 20,000 pounds sterling by 1778.[5]

Meanwhile, the size of the library's holding expanded quickly, but a fire destroyed all but about 185 volumes of the 5,000 or 6,000 in the collection on January 15, 1778; the library recovered, though, and held 20,000 volumes by 1860.[6]

In 1874, the Apprentices' Library Society was merged with the Charleston Library Society.[7]

Members voluntarily paid (and still pay) a small subscription to the library to purchase books which all members may share. Most of the early books needed to be purchased from England because the American printing industry was only in its infancy in the 18th century. The Library Society played a crucial role in the founding of the College of Charleston in 1770 and the Charleston Museum in 1773.


The Charleston Library Society's collection has been held in many locations. Originally, elected librarians safeguarded the Library's materials in their homes until 1792, when the collection was transferred to the upper floor of the Statehouse (today, the Charleston County Courthouse). From 1835 until 1914, the Charleston Library Society occupied a building at the corner of Church and Broad Streets (50 Broad St.) that was purchased with the aid of "brick" memberships, several of which are still in use generations later by Charleston families. During the Civil War, however, the bulk of the collection was removed to the South Carolina College (today the University of South Carolina) for safekeeping. The small portion of the collection kept in Charleston was destroyed.[8]

By 1910, the Society recognized that its present location was inadequate. The building was too small to house the growing collection. In addition, the building was not fireproof and was located very close to its neighbors to the west and north. The Society received a gift from James Murdoch of seed money to begin a fund for the construction of a new building, and the search for a new location began. Several locations were considered including a place on Washington Square (but it was decided the City would not offer a portion of the park) and a place on Meeting St. between Broad and Market Streets (but the lots were too expensive). The leading option appeared to be purchasing the lot at 59 Meeting St., the site of the Branford-Horry House. The Society would then divide the lot and sell the portion with the house and build a new facility on the remainder.[9] Another site on King St., however, was the popular choice of the membership, and $14,020 was raised for the use of that location. The King St. location was chosen at a special meeting of the Society held on May 13, 1910.[10]

In 1914, the Society moved to its current location at 164 King St. The building was designed in the Beaux Arts style by Philadelphia architects McGoodwin and Hawley.[11] In 1963 the Library Society bought the adjacent Barnwell Annex at 162 King Street. Then, in 1992, the Library Society purchased the Carolina Rifles Armory (c. 1888) at 158-160 King St., restored the building over several years, and renamed it the Ripley-Ravenel Building.[12] Only the facade of the Carolina Rifles Armory had survived Hurricane Hugo, so the Library Society retained that but built a fireproof storage building behind it for its rarest and most valuable collections.[13]


  1. ^ The Southern Presbyterian Review. 1848. p. 443. 
  2. ^ A Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Charleston Library Society. 1826. p. 443. 
  3. ^ New Guide Book of the Modern Charleston. Walker, Evens & Cogswell Company. 1911. p. 56. 
  4. ^ A Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Charleston Library Society. 1826. p. 443. 
  5. ^ A Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Charleston Library Society. 1826. p. 443. 
  6. ^ New Guide Book of the Modern Charleston. Walker, Evens & Cogswell Company. 1911. p. 56. 
  7. ^ New Guide Book of the Modern Charleston. Walker, Evens & Cogswell Company. 1911. p. 56. 
  8. ^ New Guide Book of the Modern Charleston. Walker, Evens & Cogswell Company. 1911. p. 56. 
  9. ^ Make Statement as to Library, Charleston, SC: Post & Courier, February 5, 1910, p. 6, retrieved June 30, 2011 
  10. ^ King Street Site Chosen, Charleston, SC: Post & Courier, May 14, 1910, p. 12, retrieved June 30, 2011 
  11. ^ Ready to Build the New Library, Charleston, SC: The Evening Post, April 18, 1913, p. 12 
  12. ^ "Charleston Library Society Webpage". Retrieved Dec 26, 2009. 
  13. ^ Behre, Robert (December 8, 1994), Library Society Has Plands for Facade, Charleston, SC: Post & Courier, retrieved Dec 28, 2009  and Behre, Robert (January 27, 1997), Saving Face: When Skin Deep Is Deep Enough, Charleston, SC: Post & Courier, retrieved Dec 28, 2009 

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Coordinates: 32°46′42″N 79°55′58″W / 32.77833°N 79.93278°W / 32.77833; -79.93278