Our 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, historic manuscripts and archival material and programs promoting discussion and understanding of the ideas they contain.  

The collections of the Library Society stretch from the 15th century to the modern-day and include materials from around the world.  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 in America) in 1773.

Founding Mission

Established on December 28th, 1748, nineteen young gentlemen of various trades and professions united in a mission to seek enlightenment by acquiring the best of the latest books, pamphlets and periodicals from Great Britain.  Membership and the collection grew quickly, with nearly 5,000 volumes by 1778 before a fire consumed much of the city and the Library’s contents.  Collections began anew in 1792 with volumes increasing to 4,500 by 1808 and over 12,000 by 1826.  By 1860 the Library Society amassed an impressive collection covering a variety of subjects under six major headings:

      Philosophy and Discipline of the human mind
      Diety & Theology
      Government & Politics
      Science & Literature – Pursuits, Improvements & Discoveries
      History & Biography

"Character Sketches from Charles Dickens" (1898).


Between 1748 and 1914 when the Library Society settled into its current location, the collection was migratory, moving from place to place for safe-keeping – personal homes to the upstairs of the Gabriel Manigault liquor warehouse to the County Courthouse.  164 King Street was the first building to house the collections 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.

TODAY, its mission remains:

  • Providing educational opportunities for all ages children through adults.
  • Conserving, preserving, exhibiting and expanding its collections.
  • Using technology to improve access to and understanding of the Library’s collections.
  • Offering lectures and programs on common literary and historical interests.
  • Collaborating with other cultural institutions on subjects of common interest.
  • Providing a literary and historical archival center for scholars, researchers and students
  • Providing programs that offer life-long learning opportunities to the community

Literature gladdens all hearts like the sun.

– From Odes for the Charleston Library Society, Centennial Anniversary (1848)