Mechanics Institute Hall, Newstead Vic

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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A steep learning curve.

Research Process:

It has been quite a learning curve this week. Prior to commencing my research, all I knew about Mechanics Institutes was what I knew from growing up in country Victoria. The tiniest of towns were often just a sign post and a Mechanics Institute Hall. I had no idea what purpose they served or why they existed in the first place.  After a crash course on the subject I have learned a great deal about how they came to be and how they served the community. This week my research has been focused on the beginnings of Mechanics Institutes in the United Kingdom and in particular, the role of George Birkbeck, the man credited with being the founding father of the movement. I have discovered that finding information about George Birkbeck was not as easy as I thought it might be. I checked the Swinburne library catalogue, and the State library catalogues to no avail.  The British Library catalogue had a single biography of George Birkbeck published in 1957, however I couldn’t find a copy in any Victorian libraries. I checked on project Gutenberg to no available, so I then searched Google Books in desperation.  They didn’t have the book in question but in a related search, I found a very interesting book on the history of adult education by Robert Peers. It contained a useful chapter on George Birkbeck and the development of the Mechanics' Institutes.

Next step in the research process was to revisit the web page of the Prahran Mechanics' Institute Library. ( Their page had a useful history section which contained information about the formation of the movement. A search of their online database told me they held copies of the titles recommended by the Mechanics Institutes of Victoria web page. My membership arrived in the post on Friday and on Saturday morning I headed in to Prahran to see what I could find.

Prahran Mechanics' Institute

What a fabulous resource! They proved to be a goldmine of information and I can’t thank the librarian Christine Worthington enough for her time and assistance. The following title, Rediscovering Mechanics Institutes: Australian Mechanics Institutes Conference 2000 featured a paper given paper by Dr Alex Tyrell from Latrobe University entitled British Origins of Mechanics’ Institutes. I was also able to secure a number of books that will be very useful as I get further down the track in my research.

My Findings: 

George Birkbeck
George Birkbeck was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy (a study of nature and the physical world- a forerunner to modern science) at Anderson University in Glasgow in 1799. He began working with the local "mechanics" that were building equipment he required to conduct experiments. (In the 1820’s the term mechanic referred to the skilled craftsmen or tradesmen who worked and maintained the machinery on which the Industrial Revolution depended). Birkbeck found the mechanics to be surprisingly inquisitive and was he was so impressed by their demonstrated thirst for knowledge that he lobbied the University Trustees for the establishment of a "mechanics’ class."  The end result was a series of lectures for working men with the fetching title: "Mechanical affectations of solid and fluid bodies." Birkbeck's first lecture attracted some 75 attendees. By the time he delivered his fourth lecture, some 500 men attended.

In 1804, George Birkbeck relocated to London. His work in Glasgow was continued by his successor, Dr Ure. The lectures continued until 1823 when, following a disagreement with the University Trustees, they succeeded from Anderson and established the independent "Glasgow Mechanics Institution," regarded as the first in Great Britain.
Meanwhile in London, George Birkbeck was continuing his work educating working men. He received support from many influential "radicals" of the day and in 1823 the London Mechanics Institution also opened its doors. Institutes in Liverpool, Ipswich and Manchester quickly followed. By the mid 1800’s there were in excess of 700 Mechanics Institutes across Great Britain.
Plaque on the London Mechanics' Institute
It is safe to say the early History of Mechanics' Institutes in Great Britain is a fairly specialised subject. I struggled to find information in local library catalogues and databases. I had much more success going directly to the source- the Mechanics Institutes of Victoria web page as a starting point and the Prahran Mechanics' Institute Library, (which I am sure will prove to be invaluable as my research continues.) Next week the focus of my research will be the spread on Mechanics Institutes into the colony of Victoria. At least now I feel I know where I will be able to locate the best resources available.

Victorian History Library Prahran Mechanics Institute, viewed 26 August 2010, <>

Tyrell, A 2000, British Origins of Mechanics’ Institutes, in Rediscovering Mechanics Institutes: Australian Mechanics Institutes Conference 2000, Dept of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp. 5-10.

O’Farrell, P 2000, A Pioneering Mechanics Institute: Foundation of the Edinburgh School of Arts, in Rediscovering Mechanics Institutes: Australian Mechanics Institutes Conference 2000, Dept of Infrastructure, Melbourne, pp. 11-19.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Welcome to my first post.

My blog is very much a work in progress and I hope to learn and improve as I go. 

I have chosen Mechanics Institute Libraries as my research topic. I plan to trace the Mechanics Institute Movement from its inception in the UK. I am interested to learn about the philosophy behind the movement and trace its spread into the colonies, in particular through Victoria from 1850 onwards.

I am hoping to discover who the Institute libraries served, how  widespread were they at their peak and when and why they began to decline. Looking at the libraries currently operating in Victoria, I would like to ascertain how many remain today and if there is a difference in how they serve the community. I would like to conclude my research by establishing how relevant they are today and how viable their future is.

My research is not exactly advanced at this stage, however I have the found the website of the Mechanics Institute of Victoria a good place to start. 

Mechanics Institutes of Victoria, viewed 12 August 2010 <>

It offered a brief history of the movement and some interesting statistics on the number of Libraries at their peak and how many have survived.

They also had a page of recommended reading and I have tracked down a copy of A Social History of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria by Baragwanath. Swinburne didn't hold a copy so I looked it up on Libraries Australia and located a copy at the Prahran Mechanics' Institute. I joined the library online and plan to visit it in the coming week and see what else they might hold that will assist my research.

I will report on my visit in my next Blog...