The ‘most important branch of the institution’: Libraries of the Mechanics’ Institutes

During his inaugural lecture as president of the Beechworth Athenaeum in 1864, J. B. Castieau identified one of the key functions and priorities of the mechanics’ institutes, arguing that the ‘Library was the main stay and sheet anchor of the Institution’. The selection of books, Castieau believed was ‘[a]lmost the only really, important duty of [the] Committee’ and ‘require[d] their most careful consideration’ (Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 16 July 1864). Referring to the debates about ‘light literature’ that dominated the selection of books, Castieau concluded that ‘however ably and honestly performed,’ the decisions of the library committee ‘will certainly not give general satisfaction’ with the wants of subscribers and the educational aspirations of the institutes frequently in tension (see Atkin et al., pp. 77-102, for a history of these debates in colonial Australia).

The report of the annual meeting of the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute committee in 1862 similarly emphasised both the significance of the library to the success of the institute and the need to satisfy subscriber demands. While acknowledging the hard work of the committee in ‘nearly doubl[ing]’ their library collection ‘during the year’, with ‘upwards of 900 volumes’ added, the report nonetheless warned that the ‘numbers of readers had also increased in a more than a corresponding ratio’ and that is was vital the institute ‘keep a pace with the requirements’ of their members (Star, 12 May 1862). By the 1864 annual meeting, the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute committee characterised the library as the ‘most important branch of the institution’ and that it was now ‘assuming a position somewhat commensurate with the requirements of the district’ (Star, 14 May 1864).

How did the mechanics’ institutes meet the demands of its subscribers, where did the books come from, and how did they ensure their selections would form the ‘nucleus of a really good library’? (Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 16 July 1864).

A number of the institutes ordered books and periodicals from the London supplier G. F. Fowler, including the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute, the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute and the Sandhurst Mechanics’ Institute. While the Ballaarat and Sandhurst institutes appeared to be content with their orders from Fowler, the Geelong institute registered concern in 1866 and chose to suspend their agency ‘owing to many unsuitable books being forwarded’ (Geelong Advertiser, 13 January 1866). The Geelong institute eventually reinstated Fowler with the stipulation that they provide a list of books rather than allowing Fowler to select the books himself.  Letters from the Ballaarat institute to Fowler suggest that they provided him with a regular list of requests and one letter demonstrates the constant attention paid to the cost effectiveness of books purchased with the Secretary, W. H. Batten, indicating that books marked with an ‘x’ need to be ‘picked up cheap’ and those marked ‘xx’ should be ‘secondhand’ (Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute Letterbook).

Extract from a letter addressed to G. F. Fowler by the secretary of the BMI
Extract of letter to G. F. Fowler from BMI Secretary W. H. Batten specifying costs of books to be purchased

Records from the Beechworth Athenaeum show a similar concern for both the cost and the speed with which books could be obtained. The main supplier of the Beechworth institute’s books was Mudie’s Circulating Library in London, but they diligently carried out price comparisons between Mudie’s and the Melbourne-based bookseller Samuel Mullen. At the 1871 annual meeting the committee debated whether ‘it would be better to procure their books in the colony at one of the Melbourne booksellers’, but the President argued that ‘they had tried all the Melbourne booksellers, and had come to the conclusion that sending to London was the best plan. They could not get what they wanted in the colony’ (Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 29 July 1871).

While the institutes may have relied on London booksellers to provide them with monthly packages they also seized the opportunity of committee members travelling to Melbourne to purchase books from sellers based in the city. In June 1866, for example, a Mr Rogers writes to the Beechworth library sub-committee from Melbourne offering his services in purchasing books from a list should they wish to provide it, while a note from December 1866 shows that an eclectic list of books—including John Gould’s Birds of Australia (1848) John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843-1860), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Only a Clod (1865) and Henry Dunbar (1864), and George Whyte-Melville’s Cerise (1866)—was purchased in Melbourne by Mr Forman (Records 1865-1868).

Sensing a marketing opportunity in the libraries of mechanics’ institutes, Melbourne-based bookseller H. T. Dwight used his catalogues to advertise that ‘Gentlemen forming Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes liberally treated with’.

Image of title page of H. T. Dwight's 1870 catalogue of books for sale
From: H. T. Dwight, A selection from H.T. Dwight’s collection of books, consisting of 80,000 volumes of, new and secondhand. Full catalogue available at:

Mechanics’ institutes within a ten-mile radius of the Melbourne Public Library could also avail of the Library’s ‘travelling library’ scheme from 1860, with the whole colony able to participate in the scheme from 1867 (Hubber; Atkin et al, p. 87). The Beechworth Athenaeum saw the travelling library scheme as a means of ‘popularising the institute’, but reported at the annual meeting in 1875 that they deemed the ‘experiment’ a failure:

‘a hope was expressed that by obtaining a supply of books every six months from the Public Library, Melbourne, it would thereby tend to make the institution more attractive, in consequence your committee applied for, and obtained a loan of 300 volumes of such books. They were received in December last, and remained in the library for six months, after which they were returned, and your committee did not think it advisable to ask for a further loan.’

(Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 29 July 1875)

While the Athenaeum does not specify why they believed the scheme was unsuccessful for their purposes, we can perhaps speculate that the genres of the books the Melbourne Public Library deemed suitable to loan did not necessarily satisfy the tastes of their subscribers.

Photograph of surviving travelling library wooden box with a collection of books arranged on two shelves inside.
Travelling Library book box held in the Narracan Mechanics’ Institute Library, Old Gippstown (photograph taken by author)

This surviving travelling library box (pictured above and below) that is held in the Narracan Mechanics’ Institute Library now located in the Old Gippstown heritage park illustrates how the books would have been safely stored and transported to those libraries participating in the scheme, offering a means for mechanics’ institute libraries to expand their collection without the expense associated with importing books from London.

Photograph of surviving travelling library wooden box with a collection of books arranged on two shelves inside.
Travelling Library book box (photograph taken by author)
Photograph of side view of surviving travelling library box showing handles of the box
Travelling Library book box (photograph taken by author)

Cover image: ‘Reading-room, Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute’, Alfred May and Alfred Martin Ebsworth 1881. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute Letterbook, BMI Archives.

Geelong Advertiser.

Ovens and Murray Advertiser.

Records 1865-1868, Beechworth Athenaeum Archives.


Secondary Sources

Atkin, L., Comyn, S., Fermanis P., and N. Garvey, Early Public Libraries and Colonial Citizenship in the British Colonial Southern Hemisphere (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Hubber, Brian. ‘Leading by Example: Barry in the Library’, LaTrobe Journal 73 (Autumn 2004): 67–74.

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