The Mechanics(1) Institute was once common in many towns and in some regards was the forerunner of the modern-day public library. The first Mechanic's Institute
was created in Glasgow (Scotland) in 1821. The first Australian version was established in Hobart (Tasmania) in 1827.
In any town that wanted a place for people to debate, discuss and improve themselves mentally, a Mechanics Institute was established. Here, those who could read,
would gather to read newspapers and other informative sources of information.
With no television or radio, the Mechanics institute provided people (especially in remote towns) an opportunity to stay up-to-date with world events.
The Swan River Mechanics Institute (the first in the colony) was founded on January 21st 1851 and was located on the south-west corner of Pier and Howick (Hay) Streets in Perth.
The first president of the institute was John Roe and he remained in that role until
his death in 1878.
The institute housed a natural history collection that included animal, botanical and mineral exhibits as well as an extensive library of books.
The natural history collection was moved to the Perth Gaol when it closed in 1892 and formed the basis of what later became the Museum of Western Australia.
The original purpose of the Mechanics Institutes was the education of the working class but in practice, the institutes became meeting places for
the middle class who were also the main sponsors of the organisation. Working class members who expressed opinions alternate to those of
their 'superiors' could find their memberships cancelled. Ex-convicts were deemed unacceptable and could not join at all.
The Fremantle Mechanics Institute was established on August 8th 1851 and this was followed by other institutes in Albany,
Busselton, York, Guildford, Greenough, Northam,
Toodyay and Bunbury between 1853-1867.
The Perth branch building was upgraded to 2 stories in 1899 and included a 400 seat concert hall and a 200 seat lodge room.
In 1909 the organisation's name changed to the Perth Literary Institute and it had a total of 9443 assorted literary items in its collection.
There are still some Mechanic's Institutes operating in the world today with the majority of surviving institutions in Australia (but sadly none in W.A.)
In 1957 the functions of the Perth Mechanics Institute were taken over by the Perth City Council and soon afterwards the subscription system was replaced by
a free lending library. The original building was demolished in the 1970s.
(1) Originally the term mechanic was used to describe anyone involved in the building trades, Ie. carpenters, bricklayers, plasterer etc.