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Library History

Over One Hundred and Still Progressing: A Library for the Twenty First Century

The contemporary glass-walled building on the busy corner of Hampton and Assembly Streets in Columbia, South Carolina appears to be an upscale hotel or office building. People from all walks of life scurry in and out the entry. Inside there is continuous movement of children and adults walking across the levels, going up and down the escalators, and stopping to talk. Alone and in groups, they cluster around computers and tables. Only then does one notice that they all seem to be carrying books-for this hub of activity is a Public Library.

This library, modern as it is, has a long heritage. Colonial South Carolina passed the first public library law in 1700. The Charleston Library Society formed 45 years later in the colonial capital was one of the first in the North American colonies. After the American Revolution, the new state of South Carolina moved the seat of government from Charleston in 1786 to the newly laid-out, more centrally located village of Columbia. By 1805, the Columbia Library Society flourished and petitioned the General Assembly for permission to make decisions without a quorum, as many members lived too far away to attend all the evening meetings. Twenty years later, the capital supported three libraries, all with reading rooms. These libraries, as well as their successors, charged nominal fees for the privilege of borrowing books, but anyone could enjoy reading selections from the collections in the public rooms.

Colonel William C. Preston, former college president and senator, sponsored the capital’s most prominent antebellum library, the Columbia Athenaeum. Donating his own collection of 1,600 books, Col. Preston also wanted the Columbia Athenaeum to be a meeting and discussion center for city leaders. Located on the Southeast corner of Richardson (now Main) and Washington Streets, the Athenaeum supported extensive collections of art and books and sponsored entertaining speakers in the adjacent lecture hall. Many a contemporary journal and letter mentioned delightful, stimulating evenings spent at the Athenaeum. One paid a $100 initiation fee and then $5 per year to be a member. Unfortunately, this lively library was undone by its own treasurer, a “slick duck” according to a contemporary account, who absconded with the funds in 1859. Six years later General Sherman and his troops completed its demise. On February 17, 1865, the fire that followed the Union Army’s plundering totally destroyed the Athenaeum.