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The first publicly supported library in the nation was established in Charles Town (South Carolina) in 1698. This library, founded just 28 years after the first permanent settlement owed its organization to the zeal and enthusiasm of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Bray, an Episcopal clergyman of that period. The General Assembly of South Carolina confirmed the establishment of the library by official act in 1700 but even before that date had appropriated funds for the purchase of books for the new “Publick Library.” The journals of the Common House of Assembly of South Carolina for 1698 carry numerous references to the public library, among them the appropriation of fifty-three pounds to be paid in London for “Bookes Belonging to ye Library of Charles Towne in Carolina.”

In November, 1698, Jonathan Amory was ordered to “lay out in Drest Skins to ye fallue of Seaventy Pounds Currant Money … for ye paymenty of fifty three Pounds … Due (on) a Publick Library” and to spend the surplus for such books for the “Publick Library” as were not already mentioned in the library catalogue.

The South Carolina Assembly expressed their gratitude for the library. A committee of the House was ordered to write a letter to the Lords Proprietors, containing among other things, the “Thankes of This House for yr Generous prsent of Soe Considerable Part of our Public Library.” The General Assembly expressed their gratitude to Dr. Thomas Bray on November 25, 1698 by declaring: “We can not but now think it our Duty, to make it our Endeavours to encourage Religion and Learning amongst us, according to the best of our Ability, seeing that yourself (though a Stranger) have been so kind and generous, as to set the first example towards the promotion of so Good and Necessary a Work.”

From the beginning the colonial government felt an obligation to maintain and protect the library. It was placed in charge of the incumbent of the church in Charles Town and he was made accountable for the books. Seven copies of a catalog of all of the books in the library were required of him and on the 5th of November of each year an inventory had to be completed. The rules for the library were carefully worked out and they were stringent. Heavy penalties were exacted for loss or damage to the books.

Although this library did not long survive in the eighteenth century, the state may take pride in the manner in which this ambitious early library scheme was handled by the provincial government. A substantial amount of public funds was laid out to promote and foster the good work, and to assure its continuance as a provincial responsibility.

The next step in the development of library service in South Carolina was taken in 1748 when seventeen young gentlemen joined together with the objective of raising a small fund to purchase pamphlets, magazines and books. Their purpose was to keep in touch with a mature civilization, the history and progress of the world, and with new publications. This group was organized as the Charles Town Library Society, an organization which 232 years later is still a flourishing institution with one of America’s fine rare book collections.

The library society or subscription library was a pattern which became popular throughout South Carolina. Libraries of this type were organized in Beaufort, and in Georgetown by the Winyah Indigo Society. By 1860 there were “library society” libraries in operation in many of the counties of the state.

Only the libraries in Charleston and Georgetown survived the War Between the States. Beaufort’s library had been confiscated and burned. The Beaufort Library was confiscated as Rebel property and sent to the Port of New York to be sold at public auction. The editors of New York newspapers protested the seizure and sale so vigorously, that Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, rescinded the order for the sale and directed that the books be stored in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington until the war was over. Unfortunately a fire broke out in January of 1865 and all of the books were destroyed. In 1950 with the aid of Senator Burnett Maybank, the South Carolina State Library Board was able to secure some restitution to Beaufort for the loss of this fine early library. In Cheraw, Sherman’s troops ransacked the library before burning the building and carried away the books scattering them along their march towards Fayetteville. Although there were sporadic efforts to revive libraries in several of the counties, none were successful because of lack of money for books. It was not until the turn of the century, with the organization of women’s clubs and the establishment of the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs that progress was made. Establishing community libraries became a major objective of most of the women’s clubs and their efforts were given strong support by the Federation. Although the libraries established were small collections of books, poorly housed and staffed by volunteers from among the club members themselves, from these small beginnings grew many of the state’s fine public libraries.

One of the influential leaders in the development of public library service was Judge Charles A. Woods. Through his leadership the Marion Public Library was established in 1898 and, with financial support from the Town of Marion, became the first public library in the state. Judge Woods was influential in the establishment of public libraries in many areas of the state, notably in Darlington, Florence and Greenville.

During the early 1900’s the general interest in the development of public library service was evident in the number of club programs devoted to the topic and the number of projects undertaken to establish new libraries or to improve those already established. Mr. R. M. Kennedy, then librarian of the University of South Carolina, was active in promoting a public library program. In 1914, in a paper read before the Kershaw County Teachers Institute, he recommended a city/county library system and the establishment of a State Library Commission. On October 27, 1915 he and Miss Elizabeth D. English, then assistant librarian at the University, called together a group of librarians and other interested persons for a discussion of the problems of library development in the state. The group organized itself into the South Carolina Library Association, with 24 persons enrolled as charter members. This association gave active support to all measures and programs affecting the development of library service.

The present public library program in the state began in the 1920’s and is largely the result of the interest, energy and determination of Mary E. Frayser who spared no effort to establish a library program and to bring books and reading to the people of the state. Miss Frayser, a rural sociologist engaged in the agricultural extension program at Winthrop, left no stone unturned until the state had a good public library law and had authorized the establishment of a state library extension agency. Miss Frayser was ably assisted by Lucy Hampton Bostick of the Richland County Library and Charlotte Templeton of the Greenville Public Library. In 1929 legislation was enacted permitting counties, townships, and municipal corporations to establish public libraries by a majority vote and to levy a tax of up to two mills for their support. A State Library extension agency was authorized but not funded. In 1934 the public library law was extended to permit the establishment of regional library systems.

Although no funds were appropriated by the legislature to activate the State Library extension agency which it had authorized, a board was appointed which had the right to accept gifts and endowments. With a grant from the Ronsenwald Foundation matched by contributions from members of the South Carolina Library Association, a fund was raised which provided $5,000 a year for a period of three years to allow the State Library Board to employ a field agent, rent office space, and provide travel funds. The mission of the field agent was the development of public libraries in the state, and in furthering this objective, she traveled throughout the state, held conferences and institutes to discuss library topics, produced booklists to guide in book selection and supplied publicity to newspapers to create an understanding of the benefits of public library service to the general public. The first field agent was Miss Parmelee Cheves who served from 1929-1932. Miss Cheves kept the idea of public library service on a county-wide basis alive even though most of her work was of necessity done with municipal and township libraries.

As far back as 1698 Dr. Thomas Bray in an essay supporting a plan for the establishment of libraries in the colonies had set the pattern for the development of South Carolina’s present county library program. In Dr. Bray’s essay he said, “Standing libraries will signify little in the Country, where Persons must ride some miles to look into a Book; such journeys being too expensive of Time and Money, but Lending Libraries which come home to ’em Without Charge, may tolerably well supply the Vacancies in their own Studies…”

Three important steps in the development of statewide library service took place during the 1930’s. Soon   after the enactment of legislation allowing the establishment of county library systems, two of South Carolina’s counties, Richland and Charleston, were chosen by the Rosewald Foundation for county library demonstrations. In 1930 the Charleston County Library received $80,000 and the Richland County Library $75,000 for five year demonstrations of county-wide service. The success of these demonstrations emphasized the feasibility of the county as a unit of service and influenced the development of the public library program in the entire state.

On January 4-5, 1934 a landmark citizens’ conference on the library needs of South Carolina was held at Clemson College. The meeting was called by the President of Clemson in cooperation with the State Library Board and the State Library Association. It brought together leaders from throughout the state to plan and adopt a program for public library development. Serving as the basis of discussion was a bulletin which had just been published by Clemson College on the Libraries of South Carolina, by Mary E. Frayser of the Agricultural Extension Staff. Following this conference the South Carolina Citizens’ Library Association was organized. In 1938 with E. R. Jeter of Rock Hill as President, the Citizens’ Association was able to secure funds with which it brought into the state Dr. Helen Gordon Stewart, an internationally known authority on public library extension, to organize a campaign for State Aid and win support for an active State Library agency. Dr. Stewart began her work in 1939 and traveled throughout the state developing citizen interest in behalf of library development and State Aid. Her work came to an end when the legislature failed to provide funds for the proposed new program. In the midst of the Great Depression funds were simply not available to fund the program.

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Early Mobile Free Library in Charleston
The Library Society’s first permanent address, which it occupied from 1792 to 1835, was within what is now the Charleston County Courthouse at 82 Broad St.