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What is a Mechanics’ Institute?

Mechanics’ Institutes are the forerunners of public libraries and adult education in Australia.

The origin of mechanics’ institutes is attributed to Dr George Birkbeck, who in 1799 gave a series of free lectures for the working men of Glasgow. At the time, ‘mechanic’ meant artisan, tradesman or working man. The definition became more specific over time, especially during the Industrial Revolution when workers became increasingly associated with machinery. The lectures were extremely popular because they were offered free of charge (at a time when formal education had been available only to the wealthy and the clergy) and offered in the evenings (when workers would be able to attend them). These lectures led to facilities dedicated to workers’ education – the Edinburgh School of Arts (1821) and the London Mechanics’ Institute (1823).

Mechanics’ institutes were established throughout Britain and its colonies including Canada, New Zealand, America and Australia. In Australia, where they were extremely popular, they had less to do with educating ‘mechanics’ and more to do with providing a model for setting up community facilities and amenities.

Australia’s first mechanics’ institute appeared in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1833 and the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute (later renamed the Melbourne Athenaeum) in 1839. Nearly every town in Victoria had a mechanics’ institute generally comprised of a hall, library and reading rooms, facilities for games and programs of educational and entertaining activities. With the passage of time mechanics’ institutes gradually lost their pre-eminence, particularly as local and state governments increasingly provided libraries, education and community spaces.

Today there are more than 500 mechanics’ institute buildings in Victoria used as halls and homes for local organisations. Six mechanics’ institutes in Victoria continue as a lending library service.

References

  • Directory of Public Library Services in Victoria 2001. Dept. of Infrastructure, Victoria, Local Government Division.
  • Baragwanath, Pam. If the Walls Could Speak: a Social History of the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria. Windsor, Vic: Mechanics’ Institute Inc., 2000.

If you would like further information about mechanics’ institutes and their history, visit the website of the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria