Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

New Zealand Mechanics' Institutes and Their Effect on Public Library Development

Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

New Zealand Mechanics' Institutes and Their Effect on Public Library Development

Article excerpt

The nearly 100 mechanics' and like institutes in New Zealand have often been regarded as just stepping stones to the formation of public libraries, or as limited attempts at adult education provision. However the)' had a significant if varied impact on cultural life, at least until the 1880s. Their legacy remains in the way that public libraries are still locally funded without direct national government financial support, and in the overwhelming acceptance of public libraries as a vital part of the community. Edited version of a paper presented at the Lianza conference September 2004

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The first mechanics' institutes worldwide can be traced back at least to 1821 in the UK to the Edinburgh School of Arts and the 1823 Glasgow and London mechanics' institutes. They provided lectures on science for local craftsmen and skilled workers, otherwise known as mechanics, with the range of lectures soon expanding to include various aspects of self improvement. By the time of their export to New Zealand in the middle of the nineteenth century, the norm was more to provide a modest library of fiction and some nonfiction, a reading room for newspapers and magazines, and a venue for popular lectures and classes, book readings, selections from plays and light drama and music. Working men were notably absent from attendance. Nevertheless, the entertainment provided still had to have an educational aspect or 'infotainment' in today's vernacular.

The Auckland Mechanics' Institute

Opened on 30 September 1842 in rented premises, by 1856 the Auckland Institute also boasted a lecture hall, which for many years was the only public meeting place available in Auckland. That hall had been financed by a two to one grant from the Auckland Provincial Council. The annual report to members in 1856 specified a lectures and classes committee, a library committee and a repairs committee. That in 1858 also reported classes on debating and music, and concerts, whilst that in 1861 reported lectures on such topics as astronomy, the British Empire and chemistry. In 1866 it boasted a circulating library, a reading room and reference library, a hall, and classes on elocution and discussion or debating. In the 1860s lectures included as topics 'Temperance', 'The importance of right principles', 'Shakespeare' and various aspects of the writings of Charles Dickens. Musical entertainment included soirees with bands and singers. Generally, the major expenditures were the salary of the secretary and the purchase of oil, candles, firewood and furniture, newspaper and journal subscriptions, books and their binding, and general maintenance.

By the 1870s the institute had tried to revive itself by, according to the Daily Southern Cross of 7 June 1870, offering 'a series of light and amusing literary entertainments ... (along with) ... scientific, historical and other lectures, together with concerts, etc; thus making it something like what an institution of this nature is in the old country'. Shakur argues that by 1860 the mechanics' institutes were 'the most pervasive and effective institution in Great Britain for the after school education of skilled workers ... (and became) ... more social and less educational' (1) as public authorities took over some of their roles. In New Zealand mechanics' institutes adopted that 'more social' role from the beginning.

On 6 June 1870 the Auckland Mechanics' Institute echoed very much the program available at the nearby Newton Athenaeum, although with less Shakespeare and more popular music. However the Auckland institute was described in the Daily Southern Cross of 24 May 1872 as 'an effete institution fast verging into obscurity and threatening to become defunct'. Nevertheless, it lasted nearly 38 years as a place where books and newspapers could be read, and books borrowed upon payment of a subscription and a loan fee.

In 1879 and with a declining membership the institute asked the Auckland City Council to take it over, and in 1880 its bookstock was absorbed into that of the new public library. …

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