Thursday, 18 July 2013

Other Mechanics' Institutes in Tasmania

In addition to the Launceston Mechanics' Institute, and the less successful Hobart Institute (1827-1871), institutes were established in many smaller Tasmanian centres.

Stefan Petrow has identified Mechanics' Institutes at Franklin, Huon, Don, Waratah, Port Esperance, Ellesmere (later Scottsdale), Emu Bay, Ringarooma and Queenstown. The word 'mechanics' did not form part of the name of the Bellerive, Campbell Town, Devon, Glenora, Green Ponds, Hamilton-on-Forth, Lefroy, Oatlands, Sorell, Stanley and Wynyard institutes, but they had similar aims to mechanics' institutes.

Related but short-lived societies included the Tasmanian Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Launceston, 1831), the Tasmanian Society for the Acquisition of Useful Knowledge (Hobart Town, 1845), and the Mechanics' School of Arts (Hobart Town, 1850).(1)

Two collections which have survived in part are those of the Bothwell Literary Society (founded 1834) and the Evandale Subscription Library (1847).

(1) The Companion to Tasmanian History (Hobart, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2005), p232.

What happened to many Institute libraries in Australia?

Geoffrey Burkhardt contributed a very interesting article on the collections of Mechanics' Institute libraries to the Book Collectors of Australia blog in September 2011. This extract from his article demonstrates the vulnerability of Institute legacy collections;

The demise of the Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes from the 1930s onwards was largely due to the rise of the movement for the establishment, by local government councils and municipalities, of free local and regional public lending libraries in Australian towns and suburbs. This development, together with the discontinuation of state government subsidies to the institutes, led to the closing down of many country district institutes, whose halls reverted to local government ownership and management in many cases. With the exception of some of the large state capital institutes, mentioned above, and a few surviving country institutes, many institute book stocks were subsumed into the local municipal public library. This was the case with the libraries of the Queanbeyan School of Arts and the Goulburn Mechanics’ Institute which in the 1940s became part of the Queanbeyan Public Library, and Goulburn Regional Library respectively.
It is now hard to find many of these former institute library books in these public library collections today, as repeated weeding of public library stocks of “old” and seldom borrowed books has resulted in the discarding of most of the former institute stock.
With many smaller institute libraries, the books were simply thrown out due to lack of use and interest, or sold off to local secondhand dealers, or local citizens. An example of this was the sad case of the sometime esteemed library of the Braidwood Literary Institute. The remaining library books were given to a local service club for a huge “white elephant” auction held in 1971. I attended this sale, where many boxes of books containing many rare and scarce items of Australiana were auctioned off at $5 and $10 per box, until all the Institute’s library books were disposed of. Other institute libraries, such as the Grafton School of Arts Library, in store at South Grafton, were destroyed in a flood that struck the town in the 1960s. The institute library at Cathcart was damaged beyond recovery when a roof guttering overflowed, discharging torrents of water into the library reading room and down all the shelving, soaking all the books. Other libraries were destroyed in earlier decades by fire when local institute halls were burnt down during bush fires, or through unfortunate accident.

Although the large majority of book collections once held in the libraries of Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes have long been dispersed or destroyed, the few original libraries which have survived and been preserved may be regarded as valuable historical artefacts and sources for the study of the Australian bibliographic history.

Burckhardt, Geoffrey, The Libraries of Schools of Arts and Mechanics' Institutes: Time capsules of Australian Book Collections,, September 8, 2011. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

A Collection of "National Significance"

An assessment of the importance of the LMI collection by Professor Wallace Kirsop

I was first introduced to the LMI collection by Phil Leonard in February 1973. At the time I marvelled at the fiction. I am glad that it has been properly recognized as an indispensable national resource. Since 1973 I have had a good deal to do with mechanics' institute libraries, not least through my role in Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria Inc.
1. The Launceston Mechanics' Institute collection, despite all its vicissitudes, is clearly the most substantial one to have survived in a regional centre from before 1850. Indeed Adelaide is the only other one of comparable longevity and it is, of course, metropolitan. Ballarat and to a lesser extent Bendigo offer collections of impressive scope begun in the second half of the nineteenth century. Consequently Launceston has claims to be unique, and its collection is vital in my view to the heritage of the whole country. After all we have lost the holdings of older institutes in Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne, not to mention Geelong. In short Launceston is a special case of national significance. 
2. If -- and it is an eventuality I view with dismay -- the non-fiction part of the Launceston collection is discarded, every item should be examined and recorded for evidence of provenance (London and colonial booksellers, earlier local collections -- public and private -- etc.). The work is of such potential importance that I am prepared to volunteer to help in it.
Wallace Kirsop: Adjunct Professor in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University; Honorary Fellow, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne; Editor of the Australian Journal of French Studies, 1968-2002; first President of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, 1969-1973; sometime Sandars Reader in Bibliography, University of Cambridge, 1980-1981.

The Future of the LMI Legacy Collection

A brief statement concerning the future of the LMI Legacy Collection
1. In terms of significance of the LMI holdings in comparison with other remaining Mechanics' Institute collections in Australia, it appears that the LMI holdings are one of only two such highly valued large collections, the other being the Adelaide Circulating Library Collection housed in the South Australian State Library. But the largely intact Launceston MI Library Collection is dated from the 1840's when the other significant Mechanics' Institute Library Collections remaining in Australia date, at least from the 1850's. Surely this renders the Launceston Collection as highly significant?

This typical Mechanics' Institute Library Collection is very special indeed in a national context as  the earliest  entire and complex literary remnant of the influential Mechanics' Institute Libraries Movement , which flourished all over Australia. Collections such as these form the basis upon which our present public library  and technical education systems were based and are an essential narrative to the understanding of our cultural, educational, literary and early European settlement in Australia.

2. I feel strongly that parts of this collection not be sold, that the collection be catalogued and assessed and that ultimately the collection be retained in total as a discrete collection. It is of utmost importance that it remains and is cared for as an invaluable unique and important Tasmanian as well as Australian cultural heritage.

Pam Baragwanath.

Author: If the Walls Could Speak: a social history of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, 2000. (Currently being revised for publication in 2014.)

Tuesday, 2 July 2013


Launceston Mechanics' Institute Buildings

Earlier temporary premises

The first two meetings were held at the Frederick St Infants’ schoolroom on 2 March & 26 April 1842

The first ‘home of our first institute’ was a room in a public school in Cameron St attached to Holy Trinity Church where general meetings & other institute activities were held until October 1843. It was open three evenings/week and continued to be used for lectures until 1849.

Elizabeth St schoolroom attached to St John’s Church:
The room was offered by Rev. Dr Browne when the institute was required to quit the Cameron St premises; It was used from 10 October 1843 to March 1844.

The Government granted a block of land in Wellington Street for an institute building in October 1843.

A building 23 feet  by 15 feet was erected by Alexander Kidd in St John Street (‘adjoining his cabinet manufactory’) as a reading room & library for the institute.  It was occupied from March 1844 until the permanent building was occupied in 1860, initially for a rent of £30 p.a.

The Institute Board offered to trade the Wellington Street land for a block in St John Street, and eventually the Government granted land at the corner of Cameron and St John streets on 27 January 1846.

Lectures and larger events held in the Temperance Hall and Assembly Rooms from 1849.

After lengthy discussion which began in 1843 about a permanent building and continued for over a decade with little money raised, in 1856 strenuous efforts led to a substantial sum being accumulated, and tenders were called for a grand, purpose-built edifice designed by W H Clayton. G R Russell’s tender for £5370 was accepted; the foundation stone was laid in June 1857 on the institute’s land on the corner of Cameron and St John streets.

The new Launceston Mechanics' Institute Building in 1861. 
A detail from a stereograph by Alfred Abbott.

Permanent premises
The Launceston Mechanics’ Institute building was opened 9 April 1860 by the president, Dr Casey. It was Italianate in design, 60 feet long fronting Cameron Street by 70 feet along St John Street, and 45 feet high with two storeys. It featured a reading room, a library, a classroom, a museum and a lecture room on the ground floor, and a laboratory and a lecture hall capable of holding an audience of 700 on the first floor.

Launceston Council sold land adjoining the Institute to the Institute Board in 1869, and in 1870 quarters for the librarian were erected there.

The Librarian’s quarters were pulled down in 1884 to allow for the expansion of the main building with a new committee room downstairs, the museum moved upstairs and enlargement of caretaker’s quarters. The new building opened in September1885.

The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery began construction in 1887 and the Institute’s paintings & exhibits were transferred to it by 1891. The upstairs space left vacant became the free reading room and repository of the Launceston Library Society’s collection which passed to the Institute in 1889.

Tenders were called for a major redevelopment of the Institute in Feb 1907 because of lack of space and poor condition of the building. Renovations concluded in Feb 1909: the Cameron Street front now uniform in style, a new section three storeys high topped with a dome, the Librarian’s rooms in the top storey, and toilets and other facilities modernised (The building continued in this form during the period in which the name of the institute was changed to Launceston Public Library.)

A 1941 postcard of the Institute building

Renovations to modernise the building and its facilities were undertaken in 1944-45 to establish it as a free public library; the holdings of the institute were transferred from the Launceston Library Board to the Launceston City Corporation and administration passed to the State Library.
In the 1960s with such a large use of library services and the building being in a bad state of repair,

In 1964 Council accepted  a Government proposal to establish a northern regional library under the control of the State Library Board and granted land for the construction of a new building next to the Institute site.

In 1971 the old Mechanics’ Institute building was demolished and the new Northern Regional Library building opened.