Mechanics’ Institutes evolving with their communities

You may have noticed Mechanics’ Institutes in cities and towns across Victoria.

Architecturally, they all stand out – from grand buildings in Melbourne and Ballarat to humble centres dotted around Victoria’s suburbs and small towns, from Brunswick and Prahran to Little River and Kinglake West.

Driving past one you might have wondered, “What exactly is a Mechanics’ Institute?” The answer takes us to 19th century Scotland.

Mechanics’ Institutes began at the Andersonian Institute in the 1800s, when a Dr George Birkbeck began giving lectures to local skilled labourers. This led to the founding of the first Mechanics' Institute, the Edinburgh School of Arts, in 1821.

“They were free and very popular,” says Steven Haby, Acting President of the Mechanics’ Institute of Victoria (MIV) and Secretary Librarian at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute.

The movement soon spread to London and throughout the British Empire.

Prahran Mechanics' Institute in 1856Australia’s first MI opened in Hobart in 1827 and Victoria’s first was established in Melbourne in 1839, followed by the Prahran branch in 1854.

“We [in Prahran] were the second library per se in Victoria; the Melbourne Public Library [now the State Library Victoria] opened about six months later, so we beat them!”

From the 1850s, local volunteers, landowners and philanthropists opened up more Institutes. Mr Haby likens them to a modern-day TAFE or U3A.

“They had a high-end view of educating for a better society,” Mr Haby explained.

“They ran all sorts of classes, from philosophical lectures through to cooking and painting classes.”

Evolving with community needs

However, within a century, things changed.

“A lot of these institutes really declined in the 1950s, as a lot more public libraries [appeared] and with the advent of television.”

At the height of their popularity there were around a thousand Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria.

562 remain today and just 10 continue to have library services.

To survive, the Institutes had to change what they offered their communities.

In 1973, the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute became the Melbourne Athenaeum. (The word ‘athenaeum’ comes via Latin from the Greek ‘athēnaion’, meaning the temple of the goddess Athena in ancient Athens, a centre for teaching).

“The Melbourne Athenaeum still runs a library, their focus is more on literary events, given their connection to the theatre and musical events,” Mr Haby said.

Mr Haby said the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute (PMI) library struggled for relevance before it transformed into the Victorian History Library in the 1980s.

“It annoyed a few people but we also gained a huge increase in membership from academics and historians.”

Several Institutes gradually turned into community centres and function venues.

“For example, the [one] at Fawcett has a hall for hire for all sorts of events, exhibitions and community meetings.”

Stepping back in time

Little River Hall“Some Institutes act as a museum, for example the one at Briagolong still has a lot of its original fittings, as do places like Maldon, Stanley and even Talbot,” said Mr Haby.

“In some cases, these halls are like stepping back in time. They provide a snapshot of what was happening on a day-to-day basis in the town.”

Prahran still has its original doors, while the building in Footscray also has its original pool table.

A lot of historical minute books from meetings held at these halls are still available, and the Footscray Mechanics’ Institute library has one of the largest collections of Mills and Boons books in Australia.

Looking to the future for Mechanics’ Institutes

The State Government recently announced $100,000 in grants from the Public Libraries Funding Program for the 10 Mechanics’ Institutes offering library services.

This will help with initiatives like buying new books and equipment, building and furniture upgrades.

“For a lot of them, [these grants] mean keeping the doors open,” Mr Haby said.

The Government is also providing $30,000 to the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria (MIV), to help with IT upgrades, collection-building and cataloguing, as well as giving their magazine, Useful Knowledge, a facelift.

“The [magazine’s] content ranges from scholarly articles about the movement in general to what’s happening in the other chapters around the world, down to what’s happening on the ground [here].”

Mr Haby is keen to increase the membership of the MIV and expand it to include other halls.

“We want to get newer members but also younger members – get them interested in history.

“A lot of people say history is dull and boring. But no, it’s not. It’s about making it relevant and contextual to them.”