Despite challenges, S.C.'s rare, subscription libraries still finding success

The Timrod Library is one of two subscription-based libraries in the state. File/Summerville Journal Scene

SUMMERVILLE — Even after the expansion of public libraries, the privately owned Timrod Library still stands.

The institution, which is one of two subscription-based libraries in South Carolina, has maintained its relevance and is showing no signs of closing up shop.

Located at 217 Central Ave., the library was established in 1915 by a group of Summerville women who wanted to read books together about electricity and history. 

It was named after Henry Timrod, an American poet who penned several writings about the Confederacy.

It modeled itself after other private libraries started in the 18th century that were supported by members who paid fees to read its books on politics, history, math and science.

But across the country, many closed when they were replaced with public libraries. In 1979, a Dorchester County Public Library opened on Trolley Road — just 2 miles away from Timrod.

The public library system tried to get Timrod to assimilate, but Timrod refused.

The library had a niche, particularly for those interested in local history. People still opted to pay Timrod membership fees, even with a free library in town, because the private facility has certain materials not available in public libraries, said library Director Cindy Koontz.

These included books with local history, such as "Pineland Village," which details an 18th century Summerville community, or books penned by Summerville historians and natives.

The Timrod also offers information on some of the town's historic homes. New homeowners often come to the institution to learn history of their new dwelling.

"We're a great place for people doing research," Koontz said. “We have some of those books that nobody else had."

The library had its challenges.

With a tiny budget and no public funds, it had to replace an air-conditioning unit and had to install new lights years ago. Maintaining the chimney and roof have also posed a challenge.

"One of the biggest things we’re always doing is trying to maintain and preserve this building," Koontz said. "That’s a major cost.”

Today, the library is thriving.

It has a collection of over 12,000 books that detail early history in Summerville. It raises money with fall festivals and shrimp boils, and often invites local authors who host events. Members can join for $25 and families for $50.

On Thursday, the Summerville Preservation Society dedicated a historical marker at the site, honoring its legacy in the town.

The state's other subscription-based library has found success over the centuries, as well.

The Charleston Library Society at 164 King St. was established in 1748. It boasts thousands of members with hundreds of programs each year that include visits from world-renown authors.

There, members can review handwritten manuscripts by Alexander Hamilton, while also enjoying jazz music and good conversation.

“People are looking for a place where they can listen to jazz concert, mingle with people who are intellectually curios, and make the world a better place," said library Executive Director Anne Cleveland. "It provides an oasis in the middle of the historic district. It gives people a chance to come together.”

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