catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The mechanics institutes

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The other day I heard that Alan Jones gave a blank response when a caller mentioned a “mechanics institute”. I don’t know the context but it is tragic that an educated public commentator should be ignorant of the glorious record of the mechanics institutes. This is a part of the movement of citizens and workers to improve themselves, along with the workers education movement or the Workers Education Association which morphed into the modern adult education movement in some states.

According to the Ballarat MI site (below) the movement started in 1800 with George Birkbeck, in Glasgow, when he had the idea of education for “journeymen mechanics”. In those days all kinds of tradesmen were sometimes called mechanics . It is claimed that in 1824, the first institute in the full sense of the term was organized by Birbeck in London.

This is a potted history that is a part of story about the MI at Lawson in the Blue Mountains. Note that by 1890 there were 76 Schools of Arts, Mechanics or Literary Institutes throughout the state offering a wide range of adult education.

A Mechanics Institution was first established in the Colony of NSW in 1823 under the patronage of the Governor, Sir Richard Bourke and under the direction of a Scottish Minister, Rev. Henry Carmichael. The objects of the institution were similar to those that had been established at the beginning of the 19th century in Scotland and England to provide for the diffusion of useful knowledge, and the awakening of a love of study by means of a library, news and reading rooms, lectures and classes for instruction accessible for the working classes.

From the 1850s, Mechanic’s Institutes spread quickly throughout the towns and cities of Australia through Government support in the provision of sites and some financial support. Sir Henry Parkes had had his early education in such an institution in Birmingham and supported the movement in NSW during his time as Premier of the State. By 1880 there were 76 Schools of Arts, Mechanics or Literary Institutes throughout the state offering a wide range of adult education. The Board of Technical education was established in 1883 to oversee adult and technical education and by 1914 was overseen by the Department of Education. Formalisation of technical education in NSW left local Mechanics Institutes free to pursue a wide variety of cultural and social activities within their communities.

More history, across Australia, courtesy of the Ballarat MI site.

The MI movement in Victoria.

Nearly every town in Victoria had a Mechanics’ Institute. Institute committee members were dedicated to the improvement of the cultural, educational and social life of the inhabitants of their local communities. With the passage of time and the creation of enlarged educational, welfare, recreational and library facilities, Mechanics’ Institutes gradually lost their preeminence, particularly after World War II. Today there are over 500 still operating in Victoria as halls and homes for local organisations.

This is the story about the Ballarat MI which is now a major library.

‘When the excitement and turmoil attendant upon the prolonged struggle between the miners and the Government of Victoria, that culminated with the lamentable bloodshed of Eureka, subsided, the pioneers of Ballarat recognized that a broad based institution for the “diffusion of all literary, scientific, or other useful knowledge” was needed.’ **Statement from Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute Jubilee Souvenir 1909

After much discussion, the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute was inaugurated,
and a reading room was formally opened on the 25th. of May 1859.

Similarly at Prahran though without quite the same desperate antecedents.

And at Young, this story has an account of the start of the major funding of public libraries in NSW.

The Library service at Young has quite a long and interesting history beginning in 1870 when a meeting was held to establish a School of Arts. The School of Arts was run by a committee and operated from rented premises. There appears to be no record of the use made of the School of Arts, but it seems to have ‘died’ after a few years.

The foundation stone for a Mechanics Institute was laid in May, 1875 and when it was completed it became Young’s most important building. The School of Arts collection of books was acquired, newspaper subscriptions were taken out and the new reading room opened on 2 July, 1875.

This new venture was never a financial success, probably lacking public support, and was later mortgaged to the Bank of N.S.W.. In 1886, when the debt was 3,515 pounds, it was decided to ask the Municipal Council to take it over as a Town Hall and Public Library. The Mechanics Institute remained closed for a year with a meeting in December, 1887 being attended by only seven townsmen. Council was in favour of taking over, but the matter was stood over to enable the installation of electric light to be financed. In the meantime Council leased the reading room and Library. In 1888 Council decided to buy the Institute, including the half acre of land on the western side of the building. ..

The extension of Public Libraries throughout the country as part of the decentralisation scheme was assisted by the Government when this new Act came into being. The principal Librarian of the Public Library of N.S.W., John Metcalfe, explained the system to a meeting in Young in July, 1944. The Young Municipal Council, Burrangong Shire Council and the School of Arts committee conferred and soon afterwards Young formed one of the first Public Libraries in New South Wales under the Act. It took over the Library premises of the School of Arts which were altered to provide for the new scheme.

In New South Wales at this time individual Libraries were scattered over the inland areas. Most of them served small populations and were insufficiently funded. Regionalisation was seen as a solution to this problem with several Libraries co-operating and sharing costs. The State Library Board advocated this scheme and, with its assistance and encouragement the first Regional Library Service, the Central Murray, was begun in 1946. Then followed the Upper Murray in 1950 and Namoi in 1951. The Young Municipality and Burrangong Shire joined with Boorowa Shire, Demondrille Shire and Murrumburrah Municipality to form the South-West Regional Library Service in 1952.

The South-West Regional Library Service headquarters are still located in the old School of Arts building in Lynch Street which has been renovated over the years to add a children’s Library and larger workroom. This makes it one of the few Libraries in New South Wales still housed in their original building.

Written by Admin

December 12, 2005 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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