A New Era for the Charleston Library Society, One of the Oldest Libraries in the US

How a cultural institution founded in 1748 continues to foreground access and discussion
Courtesy Charleston Library Society

The bindery at the Charleston Library Society promotes book preservation through meticulous conservation and hands-on teaching inspired by its historic collection. 

In the heart of Charleston, South Carolina’s downtown, stands an impressive Beaux-Arts structure often mistaken for an opera house or a city hall. This building serves as the home of the oldest cultural institution in the South—the Charleston Library Society (CLS). Nineteen young gentlemen amassed CLS’s inaugural collection of 5,000 British volumes in 1748. A devastating fire in 1778 destroyed all but 185 of them. Nevertheless, the private library survived and now approaches its 276th year with a membership of over 3,000 and a special collection that ranges from Elizabethan-era literature to letters by preeminent American Revolutionaries. 

Sitting down with Lisa Hayes, CLS’s special collections librarian, she displayed a letter from Captain John Paul Jones deriding his civilian superiors as well as an immaculate 1632 Shakespeare Second Folio. “The content and printing history of the book are remarkable, but the material history of the item always surprises people,” Hayes said of CLS’s copy of the Second Folio. “Knowing that the volume has withstood wars, hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes—and that it’s been a part of our collection since at least 1813—is very cool.”

Courtesy Charleston Library Society

Dorothy’s Book Bindery was established at CLS in 2011, expanding opportunities for sharing hand bookbinding, papermaking, and more with visitors. 

CLS’s special collections are also continuing to expand with new additions and digitization to share its books with researchers working on-site and remotely. “I try to remember that what we are adding to the special collections today will be studied in the same way that we are using the material that was added 276 years ago,” Hayes said. “It is very fulfilling.”

The lovely red, sturdy box cradling the Second Folio was produced in-house by James Davis, CLS’s director of conservation. Since 2012, the Jerrold and Ann Mitchell Conservation Lab and Dorothy’s Book Bindery have enabled CLS to save books meaningful to the South. Some past “patients” have included a family Bible dating back to 1694 that was restored to fine condition on behalf of the Huguenot Society. When not helping other bibliophiles in South Carolina, the library allocates its conservation resources inward. For example, CLS recently concentrated on conserving a 1768–75 account book belonging to Charleston woodworker Thomas Elfe. The book shares a glimpse into Elfe’s interactions with Charleston’s elite and early American craftsmanship. 

Courtesy Charleston Library Society

Rare volumes are conserved and preserved at CLS, which cares for its collection as well as books from its community.

The bindery and conservation lab also teach the art of hand bookbinding and techniques such as paper marbling, leather and gold tooling, and case making. 

“The thought I like to leave people with is how important the work is and its impact on the community, along with our responsibility to save books for the next generation,” Davis said. He added that “these are documents that pertain to the history of our country and go well beyond the imagination of what we do every day.”

From ongoing conservation to its dynamic events, CLS retains its Southern charm and shows how history never really leaves if one continues to save and remember it.