Restoring a treasure of books

Trisha Kometer, a librarian and archivist at the Charleston Library Society, shows damaged manuscripts and books from the library's natural history collection. The library, the third-oldest circulating library in the United States, is embarking on a $70,000 project to restore thousands of volumes from its natural history collection.

The oldest library in the South -- and the third-oldest in the nation -- announced Friday a multi-year effort to catalog and restore thousands of rare books, many of which have survived for centuries through earthquake, war and the relentless heat and humidity of Southern summers.

The Charleston Library Society put on display about a half dozen rare titles, some dating to the 1700s, as part of a weeklong exhibit highlighting an effort to catalog the nearly 18,000 titles in its natural history collection.

The library in the heart of the city's historic district was established in 1748 "by 19 young men who wanted to make sure their children did not grow up as savages," said Anne Cleveland, the executive director of the library society.

The library is thought to have about 100,000 volumes, but most are recorded on an old card catalog that may or may not hold accurate information.

Now, grants and donations are enabling the library to hire archivists to go through its extensive collections.

The MeadWestvaco Foundation on Friday announced a $15,000 grant to support what's expected to be a $70,000, multi-year effort.

Trisha Kometer, a librarian and archivist, said she expects some volumes in the natural history collection date to the 1600s. The oldest book in the library is a 1492 Bible.

The rare, older books were moved to a climate controlled vault in the mid-1990s.

One of the rarer books put on display Friday was "Southern Ichthyology" by John Edwards Holbrook, an 1847 work on the fish of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. There are only three other copies in libraries in the world.

Many of the books in the natural history collection have been damaged a bit over the years.

"It's amazing that they made it through American Revolution. They made it through the Civil War. They made it through a fire and hurricanes. They made it through Charleston summers without air conditions and through insect damage," Kometer said. "They are still here and in some cases the illustrations are still stunning."

In the case of a large folio with illustrations, restoration could cost $10,000. Other books might just need their bindings sewed and have new covers attached, she said.

As the collection is catalogued the holdings of the library are being posted online.

"We hope through our grant we can help establish a renaissance by making sure people know what is here so researchers can come to the Lowcountry and so people of the Lowcountry can come here and study the treasures of the library society," said Kenneth Seeger, president of community development and land management for MeadWestvaco.