One of Charleston’s cultural mainstays celebrates a landmark anniversary this month. In 1748, 17 young men founded the Charleston Library Society as a private subscription library to foster an appreciation of the arts and sciences. When there was no public institution to lend reading materials, when the economy floundered and books could not be bought, when gentlemen’s clubs were pricey, and women were expected to stay at home, there was always the Charleston Library Society. It became a place of democratic ideals run by a social elite—perhaps the best example of noblesse oblige.
And yet it wasn’t until 1914 that the society would have a building designed and constructed specifically for it: a new Beaux Arts-style home that opened its doors at 164 King on July 20. The public flowed up the front steps to experience its light-filled rooms, fireproof structure, electric lamps, steam heat, and the vacuum system keeping it dust free.
Some 60,000 books, pamphlets, and magazines were then accessible for $4 a year, and members such as DuBose Heyward, John Bennett, Albert Simons, and Josephine Pinckney would come to read and write here.
Today, the society holds more than 110,000 volumes—from those dating to the medieval period to current best sellers—as well as an archive of rare Charleston imprints and manuscripts documenting the founders of our country, state, and city. In recent years, it has been hosting concerts, book signings, art installations, and lectures with renewed vigor, drawing a new generation of culture-seekers to propel the building into another century.