The College of Charleston owes it very existence to libraries and books. Established in 1748, the Charleston Library Society helped to lay the foundations for the College by raising funds for the purchase of scientific equipment and professorships for an academy, which eventually became the College. Later, the society’s members formed a majority of the trustees who established the College following its chartering in 1785.
Even before the College existed, it had books for a library, thanks to Goose Creek planter John Mackenzie who willed 1,200 volumes to the planned institution in 1771. At the time of his death, Mackenzie owned several plantations, and much of his wealth was generated by the sale of indigo and rice cultivated by enslaved people. A fire destroyed most of the book collection during the Revolutionary War, but many still survive and are part of the library's collection today.
The College’s first library was located in what is today called Randolph Hall. But after renovations to that building and the installation of a natural history museum on its third floor in the early 1850s, the library had to be relocated to another space. The College’s collection of books was meager and undistinguished until 1852, when Dr. Lingard A. Frampton donated his private library of 4,000 volumes, prompting the first serious discussion about the need for a dedicated library building.
In 1854, the South Carolina General Assembly appropriated funds for the construction of a new library. The trustees initially considered building an addition to Randolph Hall, but that plan was later abandoned, and a contract was awarded in January 1855 to Charleston architect George C. Walker. He built a separate library to the west of and perpendicular to Randolph Hall. An inauguration ceremony for the newly completed library was held in July 1856. Designed in the classic Greek Revival style, the stucco-over-brick structure housed a collection that continued to receive private donations until the Civil War.
The library’s collection was temporarily relocated inland during the federal occupation of Charleston (1865-68). At some point during the bombardment of Charleston (1863-65), part of a shell hit the library and “passed through the roof and through the table” where a professor was sitting. Trustee minutes reported in August 1866 that much of the library collection was still in crates in a train station in Camden, South Carolina. In October 1866, a trustee proposed taking out an insurance policy on the buildings and their contents, but the College’s income had now been greatly reduced; the estate of Elias Horry, for example, could not meet Horry’s pledge to pay $500 per year, due to “the calamities of the war, and Emancipation then followed, resulting in a disastrous reduction of the means of the Estate.” The Horry family donated property to the College in lieu of the cash pledge, and the College persuaded the City of Charleston to pay the insurance premium.
In 1970, the library was named for College of Charleston alumnus Edward Emerson Towell (Class of 1934), who served more than 30 years as a professor, chair of the chemistry department, dean and acting president. Towell Library served as the College’s main library until 1972, when Robert Scott Small Library opened on the west side of the area known today as Cougar Mall. The interior of Towell Library was then renovated to serve as a learning resources center with audio-visual equipment and a language laboratory. The College’s third and current standalone library building, the Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library on Calhoun Street, opened in 2005.
In the modern era, Towell Library housed the Office of Admissions from 1987 to 2010, welcoming new students and families during the College’s most significant period of enrollment growth in the 1990s. In fall 2017, the Office of Alumni Affairs relocated to Towell Library, where it houses offices for staff and serves as a welcome center for alumni returning to campus.