Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic
Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mechanics' Institutes Libraries- Where to from here?

Research Process:

Once again The Prahran Mechanics' Institute Libaray came to my aid this week. This week I needed to focus specifically on the the libraries that remain and what the future holds for Mechanics' Institute Libraries. The Department of Infrastructure's report on MI Libraries, and once again conference proceedings have been very useful. I have also revisited the Mechanics Institute of Victoria web site. It has useful links to existing MI Libraries which have provided me with a feel for how these libraraies have managed to survived when so many others failed. I also found some useful newspaper articles via ebsco host.


My findings have been broken up into the following areas, as per my original research plan.

1. How many remain today?

Of the approximately 1030 Mechanics' Institutes that existed across Victoria, just over 500 buildings remain. Of these, 400 still serve as local community halls. Of these buildings, around 100 of them serve as a library in some capacity. A good percentage of these are Mechanics' Institute Libraries that remain in their original buildings but are now run by local councils. Castlemaine, Bright , Kyneton and Chiltern are examples.

Unfortunately very few Mechanics' Institute Libraries have survived to operate independently. The following libraries have showed a great deal of resilience and against the odds to continue to operate today (in most cases still at their original sites.) 

Melbourne Athenaeum

Melbourne Athenaeum (since 1842) 
Prahran Mechanics' Institute (since 1854)
Maldon Athenaeum (since 1854) 
Footscray Mechanics' Institute  (since 1856) 

Footscray Mechanics' Institute

These Mechanics' Institute Libraries no longer operate as lending libraries but they still house the bulk of their original collections- now an important historical resource:


The following Mechanics' Institute Libraries operate in both capacities- part lending library, part historical collection:

Port Fairy

2. Is there a difference in how they serve the community and how viable is their future?

There is a marked difference in how the surviving libabries serve the community, as you would expect after 150 years of social and cultural changes. In an effort to remain viable Mechanics' Institute Libraries have had to adapt or disappear. The days of educating the working classes have long gone though it is pleasing to note that the Narre Warren MI serves as an adult education centre. It is in the minority however! Most libraries have found a niche and managed to press on. For example:

Prahran Mechanics' Institute Library has been able to survive by becoming specialised. It is the only specialist local history library in Victoria, yet it relies heavily on the Stonnington Council, and its database for assistance with cataloguing. It has also turned to publishing and produces local history and history of library publications.

The Ballarat Mechanics' Institute (left) survived some dark days and is again thriving under the Presidency of Dr Frank Hurley. He was able to recognise the historical significance of the musty library and newspaper collections and the beauty of the dilapidated premises.  Dr Hurley has been very proactive in fundraising for restoration works and has overseen the transforantion of an institution in disrepair to an active one with a bright future. A grant of $270,000 from the Public Heritage Program has assisted. The Library has successfully promoted its historically important collection and once again holds regular lectures on a on a varirty of topics.

Berwick Mechanics' Institute Libary (right) fought a valiant battle to remain independant. It thrives today, and owes a great debt to Lady Casey who supported the Institution financially in her lifetime and beqeathed them a significant portion of her historiaclly valuable libray. The library continues to thrive with the help of a large army of volunteers.

The Melbourne Athenaeum has enjoyed 170 years of continuous service, from the same site. It has revisited the past with a busy programme of talk and lectures, though they are primarily author talks and book launches (not scientifific lectures.) Today's Athenaeum also houses the Athenaeum Theatre and Comedy Club, a cafĂ© and retail shop - all of which are leased to managers. This provides an enviable source of income to assist the continuation of the libaray.

Survival for most of these libraries still remains a year to year proposition. Overheads are high and the cost of maintaining aging buildings can be crippling. There have been some significant steps in recent years that may lead to long term protection for this historically significant Institution.

The formation of The Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria (MIV) in 1988 was an important step. Having operated independantly since their inception the value of an overseeing orgainisation cannot be underestimated. "It aims to foster the preservation and restoration of the social, cultural and physical heritage of mechanics' institutes through the development of information exchanges and systems of mutual support." Regular conferences are held and historians and librariarans gather to celebrate their history and discuss the future. Suggested initiatives include:

-Increase public awareness of the historical importance of Mechanics' Institutes
- A push to have all remaining Halls heritage listed.
- Exploration of alterantive sources of funding
- Cataloguing and evaluation of all library collections nomatter how small or seemingly insignificant.

There is also a growing feeling amongst the communities of small towns that the Mechanics' Institute is an important historical landmark that need to be preserved. Fryerstown in Central Victoria (population 120) is a case in point. Its local Antique Fair which has been running for nearly 30 years was started as a means of raing funds to maintain its quaintly named Burke and Wills Mechanics Institute Hall which was in desperate need of repair. The fair now attracts in excess of 30,000 visitors to the tine community and the hall stand for years to come.


I was pleased to detect a note of optimism in this weeks research. Although there only a handful of libraries operating and more that half the buildings have been lost there seems to be a groundswell of interest in these Institutions. There is hope that the libraries that remain may continue to operate, and that the legacy of the Mechanics Institute movement may not be lost. They have been a vital part of Victoria's history and it is pleasing to see efforts being made in protecting this important heritage.


Baragwanath, P 2004, 'Mechanics' Institute Libraries in Victoria, 1839-2004'. Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics Institutes Worldwide Conference 2004. Prahran Mechanics Institute Press, Prahran, pp. 42-69.

Clancy, F 2000, The libraries of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne.

Petrow, S 1998, Going to the mechanics: a history of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute 1842-1914, Historical Survey of Northern Tasmania, Launceston.

Vink, A  1998, 'The Melbourne Athenaeum Inc- Victoria's No 1 Institute.' Mechanics Institutes the way forward 18-19 April 1998, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp.73-77.

Myer, R 1998, 'Berwick Mechanics Institute. Still going strong. ' Mechanics Institutes the way forward 18-19 April 1998, Department of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp.78-82.

Ryllis Clark, M 2003, Mechanical Genius, The Age, 7 June, Ebsco Host, viewed 19th September 2010.

McErvale, J 2005, Treat yourself to a rare old time at the Fryerstown fair, The Age, 22 January Ebsco Host, viewed 2 October 2010.

The Melbourne Athenaeum, viewed 7 October 2010, <>

The Berwick Institute and Free Library, viewed 7 October 2010, >


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