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Special Collections: Foundation Collection

What is the Foundation Collection?

Raven's Foundation Collection

Historian James Raven wrote about the Library's Foundation Collection in his 2002 book London Booksellers and American Customers : Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748-1811 He traced the history of the book-buying adventures that our earliest librarians faced as they sought to buy the latest and greatest titles from booksellers in London.  His fascinating book shows that we had great difficulty in obtaining books.  It could take more than eight months for books to arrive because of factors such as the weather in the Atlantic, but also the very real threat of pirates intercepting cargo. Some books arrived in poor condition, causing the librarians to include careful instructions as to placement of  book shipments in the "Cabbin" area of the ship to avoid damage.  It was challenging for our librarians to find the right booksellers to locate current bestselling and important books across the ocean.   Dr. Raven's research into the collections utilized our "Journal of Proceedings" (begun in 1759), and the "CLS Letter Book" (also begun in 1759) which both contain accounts of these difficulties.  The Library printed its first catalog in 1750 and Dr. Raven also used this to compile what we refer to as the "Raven Foundation Collection."  From this list of approximately 450 titles, the Library has 29 among our holdings.


CLS Foundation Collection

The Library published an updated library catalog in 1770 and a supplement to this catalog in 1772.  These early catalogs were printed and given to each member so that they could learn which books we had.  These provide rich evidence of our members' interests.  By the time of the 1772 supplement, we had 1000 books.  These early catalogs organized the titles by size going from largest (folio) to smallest (duodecimo), a practice in place until the catalog of 1806, when we began organizing our collection according to subject area, and then size.  The library still has 20 books that can be found in the 1770 and 1772 supplement.  The Library's Foundation Collection brings together the items of James Raven's collection AND the items found in the 1770 catalog and 1772 supplements.  Altogether, we still have 49 of these titles among our holdings.  Essentially, the Foundation Collection is comprised of all of the traceable holdings acquired by the Library before the devastating fire of 1778. 

1778 Fire

Leading up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Library's collection grew exponentially. By the time a devastating fire struck Charleston in 1778, the Library had an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 volumes. At the time, the collection was being housed above member and architect Gabriel Manigualt's storehouse, where he happened to store liquor.  All but 185 of the Library's books were lost in the fire.  Were they saved because they were checked out?  It is unknown.  The list of volumes that survived no longer exists, but the 49 Foundation Collection titles are noteworthy in that they survived not only this fire, but also wars, earthquakes, multiple moves, hurricanes, theft, and countless other unknown possible catastrophes.  The Halsey Map to the left shows important landmarks and significant events in Charleston's history, including an outline of the 1778 fire's destruction. 


Foundation Collection Replacements

After the Revolutionary War ended, the Library began to quickly rebuild its collection.  In looking for a more permanent location, we secured space on the third floor of the newly-renovated former State House, as the capital was moved from Charleston to Columbia in 1783.  With more space, our collection grew to 4,000 volumes strong by 1808.  Over the ensuing years, the Library has sought to replace items that originally appeared in the early catalogs of 1750, 1770, and 1772.  These "Foundation Collection Replacements" now number 76.  In identifying these replacements, the following criteria were used: a book doesn't have to match the original listing in date or publication information but must be within 100 years of the original and in the same language.  Donors have gifted us many of these replacements, while others have been purchased specifically to replace a missing copy. The Tryal of Mary Blandy, Spinster, for the Murder of her Father, Francis Blandy ...  was listed in a 1756 list of missing books in the South Carolina Gazette.  In 2016, member and friend Stuart Bennett, gifted us a copy of this title as a Replacement.  Chambers Cyclopedia appeared in our 1750 Catalog but was replaced by librarians at a later date, something we know because the copy on our shelves dates to 1751.  

We could use your help!  The only known copy of our 1750 Catalogue is at the Library of Congress. They have shared scans of it with us but we are always on the lookout for our own copy.  An unknown quantity was printed and we are always hopeful that one will turn up.  If you know of one, please contact us via email at