The Libraries of South Carolina
by Mary Frayser
Page 17
Bulletin 292 page 17
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The First Public Library in the American Colonies

It has been claimed the library at Charleston was established in 1698 and that South Carolina is the mother of free public libraries in America. The new International Encyclopedia states 1700 to be the year of the establishment of the first public library in the new world and that New York and South Carolina took such action in that year.

In substantiation of South Carolina's claim to priority in this regard the reader is referred to the Journals of the Commons House of South Carolina for the two sessions of 1698 edited by A. S. Salley, Jr.,(8) which record explicitly and at some length directs the sending of letters to the Lord Bishop of London and Thomas Bray on October 8, 1698, and to the Lords Proprietors November 19 of the same year to express, "The thanks of the House for yr generous present of Soe Considerable Part of Our Publick Library."

It is clear that certain college libraries had been established prior to, And about this time, notably at Henrico College, Virginia, 1621; at Harvard 1638; and at Yale 1701. But these were college libraries, and limited to special groups in their service. The library at Charleston was, a free public library and this investigation reveal data which lead to the belief that it was the first of its kind in the American Colonies.(6)(9)

In 1700 a library commission was created by the Assembly securing the Provincial library at Charleston. An act for the preservation of the library was passed in 1712.(8)

How long the public library at Charleston was maintained after this time we do not know. No further record nor mention of it was found in this investigation.

Libraries in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The next recorded step in the evolution of libraries in South Carolina is that of the establishment and incorporation of the Library Society in Charlestown in 1748 and 1754 respectively.(7)

The example of Charleston was followed by a number of communities in the early part of the nineteenth century. The founding of libraries and library societies is recorded in the South Carolina acts for the period, Miss Foster(4) in "A Study of Education Sponsored by Societies in South Carolina" lists 37 acts passed by the General Assembly concerning them. A library society was incorporated in Georgetown in 1800, in Columbia and Camden each in 1805, in Winnsboro in 1806, in Beaufort and in Newberry each in 1807, with 29 other incorporations in the period between 1811 and 1837 when the James Island Library Society was founded.

There is little information available concerning libraries in South Carolina between 1837 and 1900. Perhaps the history of the period furnishes a clue to the lapse from the active interest in libraries manifested between 1754 and 1837 to the inactivity as regards library development of the period 1837-1900.(10)

In the last decade of the nineteenth century economic conditions in the South improved, and in the early years of the twentieth century attention was increasingly given to social and educational questions. Interest in creating efficient public school systems grew but interest in public libraries was not general. The library legislation in South Carolina since 1900 furnishes an outline of library development in this state during the period.

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