Mission & History
The Charleston Library Society is a cultural institution for life-long learning, serving its members, the Lowcountry community and scholars through access to its rich collection of books, manuscripts and archival material and programs promoting discussion and understanding of the ideas they contain. We accomplish this by:
- providing educational opportunities to children, students of all ages, and adults
- conserving, preserving, exhibiting, sharing and expanding the Library's collections
- using technology to improve access to and understanding of the Library's collections
- offering lectures and programs on topics related to literature, history, and the book arts
- convening people around common literary and historical interests
- fully utilizing the Library’s historical building in the heart of historic Charleston
- collaborating with other cultural institutions on subjects of common interest
- maintaining a literary and historical archival center
- providing programs that offer life-long learning opportunities to the community
- providing a scholarly work environment for researchers and students
Established December 28th, 1748 by nineteen young gentlemen of various trades and professions wishing to avail themselves of the latest publications from Great Britain, the Charleston Library 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 in America) in 1773.
At first, elected librarians safeguarded the Library's materials in their homes. In 1755, William Henderson was elected librarian of the Society, and he moved the collections into the Free School (of which he was headmaster) on Broad Street. From 1765 until 1778, it resided in the upstairs of Gabriel Manigault's liquor warehouse. In 1792, the collection was transferred to the upper floor of the Statehouse, currently the County Courthouse at Broad and Meeting. From 1835 until its 1914 move to the current King Street location, the Charleston Library Society occupied the Bank of South Carolina building at the corner of Church and Broad Streets. That building was paid for with "Brick" memberships, a permanent membership for a one-time lump sum: several of these memberships are still in use, generations later, by Charleston families.
During the war years of 1861 - 1865, part of the Library's archives was sent to the state capitol for safekeeping. The reunion of the collections at the end of the war also marked the merging of the Apprentice's Library with the Charleston Library Society, resulting in the long-standing practice of providing each adult member a free membership to gift to a minor twenty-one years of age or under.
Growth of the collection called for modern cataloguing, and in 1899 librarian Ellen Fitzsimons implemented the Cutter classification system and the card catalogue, replacing our printed-and-bound catalogues. The following year marked the end of the Jockey Club of South Carolina: their assets were donated to the Society and used to create our first endowment specifically for the purchase of books. In 1902, the Society accepted its first institutional member, the College of Charleston.
In 1914 the Library Society moved to its current location at 164 King Street. This was the first building to house our collection that was designed and built for the Society. Here, in this new building, members like DuBose Heyward, John Bennett, Beatrice Witte Ravenel, Albert Simons, Josephine Pinckney, and many others, studied and read and wrote, diligently weaving the cultural fabric of 20th-century Charleston.