Libraries for the ‘ordinary man’

Travelling around the old goldfields in Victoria, Australia last week and the name on a 19th century building caught my eye – Mechanics’ Institute. From the depths of memory I was able to dredge up that the first library in Tauranga was in the Mechanics’ Institute, but what, I wondered, did mechanics have to do with anything?

A few seconds later Haiku Son had the answer from Google. The first Mechanics’ Institute opened in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1821 to provide working class men, not just mechanics, with technical education, revolutionising access to education in science and technology for ‘ordinary men’ – and breaking down the guild system of specialised learning being protected.

In Australia, the first Mechanics’ Institute was in Hobart, Tasmania, opening in 1827, while Melbourne got one in 1839. From the 1850s (and coinciding with the gold rushes), Mechanics’ Institutes spread throughout Victoria wherever a hall, library or school was needed. Over 1200 were built in Victoria but just over 500 remain today, and only six still operate a lending library service. Read more in the Wikipedia entry.

A Mechanics’ Institute and Library building (far left) makes up part of the main street at Sovereign Hill, a re-created gold-mining settlement in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Tauranga Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1871, with library membership on an annual subscription basis (the library opened in someone’s home before there was a building) – membership jumped from 20 annual members in 1871 to 106 the next year! The authors of Tauranga 1882-1982 fudge the question of when a stand-alone building was erected, perhaps in 1873, but in the early hours of May 31, 1881 the building was razed by fire in one of the city’s most disastrous events. Onlookers, however, managed to save most of the books.

An architect designed a new building free of charge and this was opened in November 1881. This building also became Tauranga’s first museum when items were donated in 1881 for that purpose. Dear readers please note that in 2020 Tauranga does not have a museum! It has a ‘heritage collection’ which sits in storage and so is not available to the public, but since the City Fathers saw fit to close the displays at the Historic Village in  1998 the city has continually stuttered over the issue of a purpose-built museum.

By 1906 the Mechanics’ Institute library had become the Tauranga Public Library. The 1930 art deco library (and town hall) building, which apparently included some striking stained glass, was demolished in 1987 much to the fury of Ngai Tamarawaho who initiated a land ownership claim and occupied the building.

A new library opened in 1989 but the story doesn’t finish there as the architect-designed building leaked badly during rain (and it can pour down here) so that problem remained the same as in the 1930 building. In 2007 the library was refurbished and a new storey added on top (which solved the leaks) but at the end of 2014 part of the library had to be shut when toxic black mould was found (after staff complaints of illness) in the adjoining Tauranga City Council premises. The affected areas re-opened in early 2015. The main part of the council building was demolished and has yet to be replaced. Nup, nothing happens fast round here.

Coronavirus update, March 23: Tauranga’s libraries closed yesterday afternoon for the foreseeable future.

summer breeze
setting aside the book
to smell her hair

Makarios Tabor
The Heron’s Nest 22.1 (2020)


cold chrysanthemums
too late to return
the borrowed book

Bisshie, Presence 64 (2019)

bird by bird
the toddler kisses
her story book

Carol Raisfeld
Australian Haiku Society Spring Kukai (2019)

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