Mechanics Institutes for the New Century

Mechanics Institutes for the New Century.


Have you ever passed through a country town, admired a staunch old building sitting proudly on the main street, and wondered what a Mechanics Institute is?

The lack of oil-stained concrete under hydraulic hoists is a clue that these places are not where you can get an oil change or replace a tyre. In fact, these buildings are the fossilized remains of the evolutionary ancestors of your library.

In the early 1800s, education was reserved for the elite, and libraries were mostly the personal property of the wealthy. New factories attracted workers (then called mechanics), and new cities provided leisure activities in pubs and gambling dens rather than the poaching and whittling of their rural origins. Community minded Scotsmen started to provide free public education in an effort to both improve the skills of the workers, and get them out of the pub. Of course, lectures need a lecture hall, and so Mechanics Institutes were created.

Communities gathered, buildings multiplied, and the startling innovation of lending libraries was soon added to the offer. The first Mechanics Institute was built in Australia in Tasmania in 1827, and the idea soon took hold across the country. Communities created spaces for learning and sharing knowledge, eventually persuaded governments to fund them – and the public library was the result.

Today, State Library sits at the other end of Stanley Street to its ancestor, the South Brisbane School of Arts (which maintains its purpose as Griffith Film School).

Libraries are still valued as community knowledge centres, and now, with more libraries introducing Makerspaces, the spirit of the Mechanics Institute is re-born. In spaces like The Edge, new technical knowledge is freely exchanged, learning is available to all and the community of taxpayers provides support. Some ideas are just too obviously good to let them die


South Brisbane School of Arts (now Griffith Film School)
John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg No: 24782

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Such an interesting bit of history Peter, that this form of public education mutated to public libraries. I wonder how it was Scotsmen who found the need to educate workers? Is there a particular part of history that makes it so?

In reality, the establishment of a seminal Institute in Glasgow was an example of many social innovations: its time had come. The Enlightenment springing from the 1700s made science a popular topic, travelling lecturers made a living giving electric shocks and blowing stuff up, and the growing pace of industrialization made skilled, knowledgeable workers essential. Into this ferment came Anderson, a cantankerous Scot who battled with the hidebound (and corrupt) hierarchy of his University his whole life, was a friend of James Watt and presenter of public lectures on Physics for years before his death. Also, this was a time when education was expensive, and restricted by class, a quintessentially English system, therefore not greatly favoured by the Scots. Anderson was a product of his times, and emerging philosophies and new political thought provided a fertile base for his innovation. In the end, his estate provided little funds towards the establishment, but the idea had taken root, and his executors made it happen after raising the funds. Other places were doing similar things, and more informal gathering places were spontaneously emerging - like most good ideas, it occurred to lots of people in lots of places. Anderson had a public profile, had followed this path for a lifetime, and so received the accolade, but in reality he was mainly a man of his times. Tasmania was not far behind.