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