I’m no stranger to libraries. In fact, one of my delights is to check out different libraries in my local area and become a member. While some people accrue credit cards, I seem to have an increasing collection of plastic library cards that I like to fan out like a deck of cards to unsuspecting people.
Pick a card, any card… Ooooh look, you’ve picked the State Library of Victoria card.
Pick another card, any card….oooh look, you’ve picked out the Brighton Library card.
And so on…
Today I’m sitting in a new library possibly, my favourite of all time. I can hear the ‘ding’ of Melbourne’s trams outside and it’s an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the street. Hidden away on the second floor of the Athenaeum Theatre, and across the road from the Regent Theatre, it’s Australia’s oldest library.
I’m sitting underneath a copper sign that says:
Melbourne Athenaeum Library and Reading Room. Subscription One Guinea per Annum.
That’a about £1.05 in today’s terms – so in Australian dollars about $1.71.
I paid $99 for membership into this special library. Usually libraries are free to join but this one has a lot of history behind it and after having heard the story by the librarian, Tom, I simply had to join.
History of the Mechanics Institutes
Four years after Melbourne was founded, the city had over 2000 residents and the first Mechanics Institute for the city was founded in 1839.
The Mechanics Institutes were originally founded in Glasgow, Scotland by George Birkbeck who was a professor in Natural Philosophy. At the time of the Industrial Revolution (1820), he began working with local mechanics who were building equipment that he needed to conduct his experiments on and who were maintaining the equipment. (Reference: http://mechanicsinstitutes.blogspot.com.au/)
He found these people highly inquisitive and with a great thirst of knowledge that he set up these mechanics institutes around the UK for the purposes of educating the working class. The idea came out to Australia where it became quite popular, the first Institute opening in Hobart in 1827 followed soon after in quick succession by others around Australia. Melbourne’s Mechanic Institute opened in 1839, the one I’m currently sitting in right now tapping out this blog post – and having survived 170 continuous years of operation.
The Mechanics Institutes are a precursor to today’s libraries and adult education centre and were formed to educate the working class and came at an opportune time when Melbourne was growing as a city. Over the years, it continued to provide free lectures and education to people across society however, like many things, the lack of funding and support waned over the years and spelled their demise. Today, you can drive around many country towns and see the remnants of the Mechanics Institutes which are community halls or public event venues.
A Link to the Past
What I loved about the story of the Mechanics Institutes was that it solved a mystery for me. I had always wondered what these strange buildings were around our various metro and regional towns and never enquired to learn.
It wasn’t until stumbling into the Athenaeum Library through an old elevator from the ground floor of the Athenaeum Theatre (“oooh, look an old elevator? Wonder if it works? It does! Wonder where this takes me? Ooh look it opens to a…..library….a secret library!”)
As I’m getting older, the more fascinated I become with history and the stories of the people who may have worked, studied and lived in our beautiful city or indeed, founded Australia (as my recent foray into Australian history shows).
More so, I’m enthralled with the idea that the Industrial Revolution had made its impact on our town through the construction works happening in the late 1800’s and the need for the people to be educated – and to inspire a love of learning – and that these institutes were created for people to learn from each other and with each other.
There’s something about the idea about people gathering to learn together at times of great change and uncertainty that appeals to me.
If anyone says to you that ‘social learning is a new concept or a fad’ you only have to look into history and see that we have always learned this way. Our challenge is to understand it as such and incorporate opportunities in our work and lives to meet others, learn and grow from the experience.
Melbourne Athenaeum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne_Athenaeum