Remembering the Days: Books before buildings

Remembering the Days podcast — episode 24

From its founding days in the early 19th century, the University of South Carolina was keenly interested in building a library collection to properly educate its students. Since then, the library's holdings have grown exponentially and include rare books and special collections that attract international scholars.


OK, if we were all still in college, it would be about time for a mid-semester pop quiz — and I’ve got one for you. But relax — it’s just one question!

What does a 19th century Italian sword, a 20th century whiskey flask and a giganormous stack of American comic books have in common?

Do you give up? They’re all part of a treasure trove of interesting items found in the university’s Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

The sword once belonged to Guieseppe Garibaldi, a famous Italian general. The whiskey flash once resided in the coat pocket of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby” — that book you were supposed to have read in high school.

And the 143,000 comic books were donated to the library by Gary Lee Watson, a very avid comic book collector.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today’s episode isn’t just about weird objects the university owns. It’s the story of how the University of South Carolina, before the campus had opened in 1805, began building what would become its world-class library.

Shortly after the American Revolution in the late 1700s, public universities began popping up, especially in the South. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia all opened colleges that would later become the big state universities we know today.

Michael Weisenburg: "And if you're going to have a university, you need to have books. And they're building this out of nothing. So they immediately appropriate a lot of money and funds to create a university, to build a building, to go out and acquire books you're going to need to educate the young male elite of the state of South Carolina."

That’s Michael Weisenburg, a reference and instruction librarian at the university.

Michael Weisenburg: "So the library quickly grows to about 5,000 titles that represented a classical education. These are mostly in Greek and Latin. The Greek and Latin classics. Think Homer, think Virgil, think Ovid. British and modern history is another major topic and the works of sort of major Americans who we would call the founding fathers, but to them they were just their peers at the time."

John Drayton was governor of South Carolina from 1801 to 1803 and was instrumental in establishing South Carolina College, which became the University of South Carolina. Drayton gave the college its first major donation of books from his own personal library in 1807. At the same time, the college was eagerly working with book dealers in New York, London and Paris to acquire books that were hot off the press.

Michael Weisenburg: "And now we have the privilege of having these very scarce and difficult to find books because they had the foresight to purchase them when they were new. John James Audubon's Birds of America is probably the most extreme example of this, but we also have a complete set of the works of Piranesi, which most institutions don't have a complete set. He's an Italian engraver from the period."

By the 1820s and 1830s, the college wanted to modernize its scientific book collection so they started acquiring titles in mathematics, economics and other sciences. That’s when we got some of Charles Darwin’s first books. And about this time, South Carolina College did something that no other college in the United States had yet done — it constructed a building for the sole purpose of housing its library collection. We call it the South Caroliniana Library now — when it was built in 1840, they just called it the new library.

Michael Weisenburg: "And it's important to point out that this was the first freestanding academic library in the United States. South Carolina had one before Harvard, had one before Yale had one before Princeton. This tells you how much they valued libraries in the period and how much money they're investing in making sure that they have a world class academic or at least a nationally standing academic library here at South Carolina.

After they do that, the legislature approves four thousand dollars to purchase more books with an added additional two to three thousand allocation of recurring annual budgets for library acquisitions. That's a lot of money in the period."

The years during and after the Civil War were not kind to the university’s library holdings. The state’s economy was in shambles so there were no more generous appropriations for getting new books. One good thing, though, that happened in the 1870s was the arrival of Richard T. Greener, a philosophy professor who also reorganized the library and introduced the first card catalog here. You can learn more about Greener in an episode of Remembering the Days called “Larger than Life.”

The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, but the University of South Carolina got federal funding for a new library on campus that was named in honor of J. Rion McKissick, the president of the institution at the time. In the 1970s, the Thomas Cooper Library was completed, and in 2010 the Hollings Special Collections Library was added to the south side of the main library.

So I started out telling you about a sword and a whiskey flask and really big stack of comic books at the library. What other noteworthy items does the library contain?

Michael Weisenburg: "We have some Sumerian and early Babylonian and Acadian cuneiform tablets. Not a lot, but they're nice to teach with and show students the earliest examples of writing that we have in the library. Our earliest Bible is from 1240. It was probably made in Oxford and it's a little pocket Bible so that Franciscans could go around and carry it with them. And by pocket Bible, I mean it would fit in a satchel, right? It's small enough to put in a bag. We have a massive Milton collection. We have the first edition of Paradise Lost. We have the best Scottish literature collection outside of Great Britain. We regularly get people from Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh coming here to work with our Scottish literature collection. We have a very good Charles Darwin collection, and we have excellent holdings in natural history and a wonderful history of astronomy collection going back from the early 15th century to the present."

The library also owns one of the very first books ever printed in Europe, a volume written by a church theologian that dates back to 1471. One of the earliest published books written by an African American is in the university’s holdings — it’s a 1773 edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phyllis Wheatley. That book is one of many that the library has been digitized and made available for everyone to see online.

The very first volume the library acquired is marked No. 1 on its bookplate — it’s a history book about England that covers the period from King George III to the end of the American Revolution. In 1971, the library acquired its one millionth book — a very rare 1855 printers copy of Walt Whitman’s poetry collection entitled Leaves of Grass.

Over the past 50 years, the university’s library has acquired millions more books. The library is now home to some interesting items, as well, like James Dickey’s typewriter, the papers of crime fiction writers like Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard, and one of the country’s best collections of Ernest Hemingway’s works.

It’s been said that a library is the heart and soul of a university — the repository of what is most important. And now you know a bit more about the heart and soul and the vast holdings of your university’s library. Stop by some time if you can or check out the digital collection from the comfort of your couch. I’ve included a few links in the show notes for this episode.

Remembering the Days is produced by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, and in the next episode we’re going to hear a story about a young woman born into slavery and later educated on the campus of the University of South Carolina. Until then, I’m Chris Horn — forever to thee.

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