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Images from the Special Collections

History of the Special Collections

When the Charleston Library Society was founded in 1748, our members had a fondness for titles relating to science, history, travel, politics of the day, and antiquities/classics.  Our librarians created a collection of circulating books, and at different points in the Library Society’s history, we have sought to grow our collection of manuscripts and rare books.  Today, we aim to be a reflection of the cultural and social life of Charleston by obtaining items for the Special Collections that will be of interest to our members now, while also trying to collect materials that are timeless in their importance.  

The early history of our Special Collections can be illustrated with a few examples.   Governor John Drayton’s 1802 gift of his manuscript copy for his book  “A View of South  Carolina” (published 1802) is an early example of a handwritten, unique item in our   archives that truly lines up with the times in which it was written and the interests of  our  members. Governor Drayton rode around the state taking notes and creating watercolor scenes of South Carolina, and then visited the Library Society to use our books and maps to round out the research for his book.  His gift to the library of his manuscript, and its subsequent published version, are noted in our library accession records.

In 1833, the trustees created a Historical Committee with the goal of collecting documents relating to our nation and state’s history.  This “Call for Collections” resulted in the gifts of 14 manuscripts that are still in our Special Collections today.  Among those received were the John Paul Jones Collection - which includes a unique "doodle" that was done by Alexander Hamilton during a caucus to form a plan for our national Navy - and correspondence of notable South Carolinians including John Rutledge, William Moultrie, and Francis Marion.  Also received during this time is the "Nicholas Trott Speech Made on the Condemnation of Pirates in 1718."  This was given by Mrs. Henry Middleton Smith along with a large collection of colonial newspapers, pamphlets, and more.  


Twenty years later, in 1853, our trustees recognized that we needed to separate our circulating collection into two “wings” - one for the “Library of Circulation” and one for the “Permanent Library of Reference.”  By then, many of our titles were 50-100 years old.  Special cases were constructed with wire mesh screens and only the librarians were allowed to take books off the shelves, in both “wings” of the library.  It was recognized that many of our older books were of such high value that they were now “beyond the reach of private means” and should not be exposed to the hazards of a circulating library.  Thus, a distinct collection - the “Permanent Library of Reference” or Special Collections - was born. 

In 1862, during the Civil War, our librarians boxed up and removed much of our Special Collections to Columbia for safe-keeping.  The lists that were made of what was sent away and then what was returned after the war are still in our records and provide another snapshot of what was deemed unique or special by our librarians.  Among those titles that were moved to Columbia were Piranesi volumes, Shakespeare’s second folio, the Atlantic Neptune Atlases and more.  


In the twentieth century, after suffering financial setbacks post-Civil War, the Library Society began to regain its footing as the center of cultural life in Charleston and once again began to thrive.  In 1906, Mayor William Courtenay donated an invaluable collection of books, portraits, pamphlets, maps, and manuscripts related to many topics, including South Carolina biographies and history.  In 1919, we were given a notable collection of 2,000 books and pamphlets by local William Godber Hinson, which form the “seed” of what we refer to as the Hinson Vault, one of our two locked vaults.   

During World War II, Charleston was considered at-risk of attack due to German submarines cruising off the coast.  Our Special Collections were carefully wrapped by our librarians and transported to an empty bank vault 200 miles away in Abbeville, S.C.  Every effort was made to keep this operation a secret.  The loading was done before daylight and the unloading was done after business hours when the streets of Abbeville were deserted.    Our Special Collections were returned to the CLS building in 1943.



Members during the first half of the 20th century included Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, Hervey Allen, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Samuel Stoney, Herbert Ravenel Sass, Josephine Pinckney, Laura Bragg, Albert Simons, John Bennett and Katherine D. M. Simons.  These artists and authors are among many others who contributed so much to the cultural history of Charleston and their membership in the Library Society offers further evidence of its central  importance to Charleston itself.  


Our Special Collections are open for researchers and members to utilize, though prior arrangement is requested.  The Library occasionally restricts access to materials in the Special Collections based on condition, size, or rarity.  Please email us at to arrange an appointment.