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2009-12, 363, 364, Geoffrey Burkhardt, Libraries, Mechanics Institutes

The Libraries of Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes: Time Capsules of Australian Book Collections.

Geoffrey Burkhardt


BOOK COLLECTORS IN AUSTRALIA, during their book hunting endeavours, will no doubt have encountered books bearing the bookplate or book stamp of a School of Arts or Mechanics’ Institute. These institutions were, during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, a most important feature of Australian social and local history. Every town and almost every village community in the Australian Colonies by the end of the nineteenth century had established its own local School of Arts, Literary Institute or Mechanics’ Institute. It
has been estimated that over 2000 existed in Australian towns, city suburbs and rural districts during the early Federation decades. In NSW in 1912 there were 433 of these institutes, with a total of 47,749 members.1 The largest of the NSW institutes was the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, which in 1915 had a membership of 2133 and a Library of 33,412 books.2


The First Local and Regional Libraries

These institutions were the forerunners of the local and regional public library systems we have today. Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institutes most usually contained halls for public meetings, dances, fairs, flower shows, adult education lectures and art shows. Almost without exception they contained reading rooms with libraries of thousands of books, both nonfiction and fiction. Very few of these institute libraries exist today, and with a few notable exceptions3 those institutes which have survived as organizations have long ago discarded their older books from their original book collection. Some of the institutes which have retained the bulk of their original library books from the nineteenth century include: Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, Briagolong Mechanics’ Institute,4 the Chiltern Athenaeum and the Stanley Athenaeum in Victoria, the Lambton Mechanics’ and Mining Institute5 and the Carr’s Creek School of Arts in NSW. Remnants of other institute libraries, such as that at Bathurst have been transferred to their respective local or regional library. Some institutes in Victoria still retain a few of the original books from their libraries. The evidence describing the composition and size of the book stock of schools of arts and mechanics’ institutes in the late nineteenth century may be found in their published library catalogues, even though many of the organisations and buildings which once established and housed these libraries have long since disappeared.


The total of all books held in the 433 Institutes in NSW in 1912 amounted to 660,168 volumes.6 It should be appreciated that the institute libraries were subscription libraries, that is, they were established for the benefit of members of their respective institutes only, who paid 10 shillings per year (for example Bungendore School of Arts, 1888 7) for the privilege of borrowing books and using the reading room. Other larger institutes’ fees, such as the Braidwood Literary Institute’s annual subscription in 1916, was “One Pound” for “Gentlemen; Ladies and Youths (under 18), 10 Shillings per annum.” The reading rooms of these institutes contained not only books, but, most importantly, current copies of local town, Australian and overseas newspapers, and periodicals. For example, the Braidwood Literary Institute in 1897 subscribed to no less than ten Australian newspapers, including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Evening News, The Daily Telegraph and The Queanbeyan Age. Periodical subscriptions included: The Bulletin, The Illustrated London News, London Punch,
Harper’s Monthly, Australian Field, Town and Country Journal, Graphic, The Windsor Magazine and Cassell’s Family Magazine.8 The stock of books of many of these institutes was comparatively large, numbering many thousands in the case of larger city institutes, as is shown in Table 1.


Published Catalogues of Institute Libraries

The Schools of Arts and Mechanics’ Institute library catalogues reveal much about the reading preferences of our nineteenth century population. Their surviving membership lists and borrowers’ records also can tell us a great deal about the clientele of these institutes, their borrowing preferences, the most popular books of that era, and the proportion of their book stock devoted to non-fiction as opposed to popular fiction. Some catalogues, such as that of the Grafton School of Arts (1887), list fiction books alphabetically by title, usually without any details of publisher or date and place of publication. Others, such as the Braidwood Literary Institute Catalogue, lists its books alphabetically by author. Non-fiction books are usually classified by subject category. For example, if we refer to the library catalogue of the Braidwood Literary Institute, published in 1897,9 a good example of a typical institute of its time, it reveals that of the 5015 books possessed, items of fiction amounted to 3744, or 74.6% of the total. The non-fiction section, which totalled 1271 books, was comprised of the following categories: Science and related categories 146; Biography 146; History 237; Voyages and Travels 249; Miscellaneous works 397; Poetry and Drama 124.


Table 1
Examples of Sizes of Libraries of Schools of Arts 1889, NSW

Numbers of Books

Bathurst              10,256                                                       Yass              3,281
Bega                       3,361                                                       Maitland      7,088
Goulburn              3,656                                                       Deniliquin   2,700
Newcastle           10,011                                                        Lambton      2,106
Braidwood           5,500                                                       Mudgee         2,737
Grafton                4,000                                                       Orange          3,700
Burwood              5,000

Source of Statistics:

NSW Statistical Register for 1889 and Previous Years. Sydney, 1890.


Amongst the most popular English and Scottish authors listed were: W H Ainsworth, Jane Austin, Walter Besant, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, Alexander Dumas, George Eliot, S Baring Gould, James Grant (over 40 titles), G A Henty, Henry and Charles Kingsley, Rudyard Kipling, Captain Marryat, Sir Walter Scott, R L Stevenson, W M Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain and Mrs Henry Woods.

Looking at the library catalogue of the Grafton School of Arts (1887) as another example, 64% of its book stock were works of fiction; its nonfiction book stock was arranged in the following main subject classifications: Australia, Agriculture, Botany, Forestry, Architecture, Astronomy, Chemistry, Medicine, Electricity and Magnetism, Engineering, Ethnology, Fine Arts, Geology, Mathematics, Music, Natural History, Philosophy, Phrenology, Physiology, Shipbuilding and Navigation, Steam, Theology, Biography, History, Voyages and Travels. It is interesting to note the inclusion of subject domains such as Shipbuilding and Forestry, which catered for the interests
of a major river port town exporting a great deal of sawn timber, including cedar. Also interesting is the category Phrenology, a topic extremely popular during the nineteenth century, and regarded then as having a scientific basis.
A characteristic of these libraries which is not usually appreciated is the number of local colonial and international newspapers and magazines to which institutes subscribed. During the nineteenth century the local institute library was, for most colonials, the only place in their village, town or suburb where they could consult editions of city, colonial and English newspapers. In a century where contact with the UK and even with other Australia colonial capital cities was very limited, communication was comparatively slow. Other than the colonial postal services and Morse telegraph, newspapers were the only source of information about what was
occurring in other parts of the colony and other colonies. News from “Home”, or “The Mother Country”, was keenly sought by most colonials who still had close relatives back in Britain and Ireland. Thus newspaper reading rooms were a popular feature of the institutes and an important incentive for membership of the local institute.


According to the 1887 Catalogue of the Grafton School of Arts,10 the hours of opening for the reading room were from 8:30am to 10pm every day, “Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day excepted”. The library hours of the institution were also quite liberal, “the issue and receipt of books from 1 to 6pm and from 7 to 9pm every day except Sundays, and holidays.” Such long daily opening hours were not untypical of many institutes in that era.


Books relating to Australia in Institute Libraries

In some commentaries on the composition of institute libraries there seems to have developed an impression that these libraries stocked very few books by Australian based authors or Australia-related books with the exception of notable books by such authors as Rolf Boldrewood, Mrs Campbell Praed, Marcus Clarke, Louis Becke and, unsurprisingly, Ethel Turner. While this appears to have been the case within the fiction category and in some small institutes with book stocks of less than 1500 books, it certainly does not appear to be the case regarding non-fiction books in many larger institute libraries which contained some thousands of books. This may be demonstrated by looking at a few examples such as the1893 catalogue for the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute library.11 Within its non-fiction category “Voyages and Travels” there are no less than 98 titles relating to Australia, excluding books on the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. This section contains a number of the published journals of Australian explorers including: Sturt, Expedition to Central Australia, Stokes, Discoveries in Australia, Warburton, Journey Across the Western Interior of Australia, Gregory, Travels in Northern Australia, Leichhardt, Overland Expedition
in Australia, John Forrest, Expeditions in Australia, and C Hodgkinson, Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay. There were also numerous non-fiction titles relating to the Australian Gold Rushes, such as G B Earp, Gold Colonies of Australia and S Mossman, Golden Regions of Australia. The Library also contained numerous titles by well known Australian colonial writers such as W Westgarth, J D Lang and James Bonwick.

In the non-fiction holdings of a smaller country institute library, for example at Grafton, the Catalogue of the Grafton School of Arts12 (1887), included a whole category of the non fiction section of the library under the heading “Australia”. It lists over 20 titles including histories and natural history by G W Rusden, History of Australia, A Mackay, Australia Agriculture, W Woolls, Flora of Australia, and titles by J D Lang and Warburton. The “Voyages and Travels” section of the catalogue included accounts of the voyages of James Cook and other Pacific oriented titles
like Froude’s Oceania. Even in a comparatively small institute library, that of the Bowral School of Arts, it is noteworthy that it held Australian titles by Guilfoyle on Australian botany, Nilson, Timber Trees of NSW, Martineau, Letters from Australia, A Sutherland, History of Australia, and other similar titles. The institute catalogue of the library of a large regional goldfields centre such as Bendigo, Catalogue of Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library,  Bendigo.13 reveals even greater strengths of Australia-related titles in its “Voyages and Travels” section and its “Natural History” section. It is surprising that the Bendigo Institute subscribed to 69 Australian colonial
newspapers (mainly those of Victorian country towns) in addition to 24 British newspapers, 35 British periodicals, 6 American newspapers, one French newspaper and one German language newspaper, Die Südaustralische Zeitung [The South Australian Newspaper].

The large, long established colonial capital city institutes such as the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts and the Melbourne Athenaeum, both of which still exist and continue to maintain large regularly used library stocks, were the major holders of Australia-related books at the turn of the century. Even then they held many expensive rarities such as Gould’s Birds of Australia, Australian explorers’ journals and many titles relating to Australia in the convict era, gold rushes and pastoral settlement. The catalogues of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts14 are most interesting references for scholars of Australian bibliographic history. The 1901 catalogue of this institute is most substantive, 624 pages containing over 30,000 books. Its reference collection is arranged into 41 subject classifications and in each
subject group the books are listed alphabetically by title and also by author, together with the date of publication. The SMSA’s circulating collection, available for borrowing, contains fiction and non-fiction titles, and is described as “A Dictionary of Authors and Subject-Words or Titles”. Books in this section are listed alphabetically by title and by author.

Another large city institute, the Perth Literary Institute,15 was still functioning actively in 1951 when it celebrated its centenary. With a membership of approximately 3000 at that time, its library stock was stated as 32,000 books.16 Its catalogue also contained a nine-page history of Perth Literary Institute. As with other large capital city institutes, the Perth Literary Institute also held a significant number of items of Australiana, especially titles relating to the foundation, history, geography and natural history of the State of Western Australia.

Some recent very significant research relating to the borrowing records and membership records of institute libraries during the mid-nineteenth century was presented by Andrew Sergeant17 in a paper titled “’To Elevate the Tone of Moral and Intellectual Attainment’: the Braidwood Literary Institute and its subscribers, 1858–1862”, delivered at the Ninth Australian Library History Conference, 25–27 June 2009. This well researched and documented paper, based upon the borrowers’ register, committee minutes and other records of the Braidwood Literary Institute, tells us a great deal about the reading and borrowing preferences of the local membership of the institute, together with an overview of the composition of its book
stock in the 1860s. This excellent paper makes a valuable contribution to the limited research available about how the libraries of institutes were used by their subscribers, what titles they borrowed and the regularity of their borrowing activities.

Catalogues of Institute Libraries—Bibliographical Rarities?

Considering that there were over 2000 Institutes around Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century, almost all containing libraries, it is surprising that there appear to be comparatively very few copies of published institute library catalogues which have survived. From a search of the database “Libraries Australia”, and state library online catalogues, I have been able to locate the existence of published institute library catalogues for only 41 institutes whose catalogues are held in state libraries and a small number of university libraries. In some cases, there appears to be only one copy of an institute’s library catalogue currently existing, usually in the relevant state library collection or, in the case of the published catalogue of the Yass Mechanics’ Institute, only in the archives of the Yass & District Historical Society. No doubt there will be others that I have overlooked. I will be most grateful to learn of the existence of catalogues other than those I have identified. I have listed in the Endnotes those institutes for which I have been able to establish the existence of at least one copy of
a published catalogue that has survived.18

What Happened to the Institute Libraries?

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, was 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 artifacts and sources for the study of the Australian bibliographic history. As Lyons and Taksa19 have stated, “before free public libraries existed the Schools of Arts played an important role in the dissemination of literature, and they deserve a secure position in the history of the book in early twentieth century Australia.” The
comparatively few published institute library catalogues that have survived are valuable primary sources which give researchers and book collectors some perception of these bibliographic time capsules as they once existed in their prime.

Notes and References

1 The Official Year Book of New South Wales 1916, Sydney, NSW Government,
1917, p. 162.
2 Ibid.
3 Refer to Frances Clancy, The Libraries of the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria.
Melbourne: Dept. of Infrastructure, 2000.
4 For details of the collection refer to Linda Barraclough, “Hidden Treasure: The
Library in the Briagolong Mechanics’ Institute”, in Rediscovering Mechanics’
Institutes, Australian Mechanics’ Institutes Conference 2000, pp. 89-91.
5 The majority of the original books in the Lambton Mechanics’ Institute are now
in the Auchmuty Library of the University of Newcastle.
6 The Official Year Book of New South Wales 1916, Sydney: NSW Government,
1917, p. 162.
7 Bungendore School of Arts annual subscription was 10 shillings, see Bungendore
Mirror, 13 June 1888.
8 For complete holdings see Catalogue of the Books in the Library of the Braidwood
Literary Institute, Sydney: Hennessey, Harper & Co., 1897.
9 Ibid.
10 Catalogue of the Works in the Library of the Grafton School of Arts. Grafton:
Printed at the Argus Office, 1887.
11 Geelong Mechanics’ Institute Library Catalogue Geelong: Henry Franks Printers,
1893, pp. 289-321.
12 Catalogue of Works in the Library of the Grafton School of Arts Grafton, 1887.
13 Catalogue of Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Bendigo. Bendigo, undated
(c. 1890s).
14 Catalogue of the Libraries of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, 1901. Sydney:
Ross, Mann & Co. Printers, 1901.
15 Perth Literary Institute Incorporated Catalogue Special Centenary Issue, 100
Years Service, 1851-1951. Perth, 1951.
16 Perth Literary Institute Incorporated Catalogue Special Centenary Issue, op.
cit., p. 3.
17 Andrew Sergeant, “‘To Elevate the tone of Moral and Intellectual Attainment’:
the Braidwood Literary Institute and its subscribers, 1858-1862.” Paper delivered
at the Ninth Australian Library History Conference, 25-27 June 2009.
18 Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, Bendigo Mechanics’ Institute, Bega School of Arts,
Berry School of Arts, Bowral School of Arts, Braidwood Literary Institute, Brighton
Mechanics’ Institute, Brisbane School of Arts, Broken Hill Mechanics’ Institute,
Castlemaine Mechanics’ Institute, Deniliquin School of Arts, Emerald Hill
Mechanics’ Institute, Geelong Mechanics’ Institute, Geraldton Mechanics’ Institute,
Glen Osmond Mechanics’ Institute, Goulburn Mechanics’ Institute, Grafton School
of Arts, Herberton School of Arts, Hobart Town Mechanics’ Institute, Ipswich
School of Arts, Kiama School of Arts, Kyneton Mechanics’ Institute, Launceston
Mechanics’ Institute, Maclean School of Arts, Melbourne Athenaeum, Mitchell
School of Arts, Moruya Mechanics’ Institute, Narrandera School of Arts, Newcastle
School of Arts, Oakey School of Arts, Orange School of Arts, Perth Literary
Institute, Prahran Mechanics’ Institute, Rockhampton School of Arts, Sale
Mechanics’ Institute, South Australian Library and Mechanics’ Institute, Sydney
Mechanics’ School of Arts, Wedderburn Miners and Literary Institute,
Williamstown Mechanics’ Institute, Yass Mechanics’ Institute.
19 Martin Lyons and Lucy Taksa, Australian Readers Remember: An Oral History
of Reading 1890-1930, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 131.

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