A conversation with the University of Alberta about Mechanics’ Institutes of course!

I was cordially invited to offer my thoughts about the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco to the graduate class Foundations of Adult and Higher Education at the University of Alberta. Via Skype I delivered the following lecture last night. The audio file includes the Q& A. Thanks so much!

Hi thank you for having me. I’m Taryn Edwards, I’m one of the 8 librarians on staff at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute. I’ve worked here 8 years and have spent the last four intensively analyzing our history – searching for themes and practices that we can capitalize upon today in order to chart a path forward.

Let me tell you a bit about the circumstances surrounding our founding.

The SF MI’s birth is closely tied to the aftermath of the California gold rush. Gold was discovered in 1848 and by 1854 the residents were heartily sick of living in a boom town – they were eager to see San Francisco civilize and develop the services of a real city.

Meanwhile, the newspapers abounded with stories of mechanics’ institutes around the world and how they helped their communities prevail. The mechanics’ of San Francisco at the same time were grappling with wage disparities, exorbitant taxes and the lack of opportunity so began to see the need for such an organization.

On the evening of December 11, 1854, approximately 25 men assembled at our City Hall with the object of forming a mechanics’ institute.

The plan:

From the beginning the directors knew what sort of Institution they wanted:

  • A library with open stacks so all the books were accessible to the members.
  • A game room where members could relax.
  • Classes that would teach new skills
  • To be an organization that welcomed everyone regardless of race or gender
  • and to cost as little as possible.

Six months after our founding we rented a room and opened our first library. And here we are today enjoying our 160th year.

Today our services include a general interest library of about 150,000 items. We offer book groups, writing groups and technology classes. We also host cultural events, namely history or socio-political lectures and panel discussions, authors presenting new books or themed open houses. In addition, we host a variety of activities related to chess including tournaments, marathons and classes.

The San Francisco MI’s longevity can be attributed to a variety of reasons but I will limit myself to three:

1) We made owning our building a priority. Early in our life we realized that membership dues were not enough to keep the lights on and pay the staff. For the last 150 years we have owned our building and hosted tenants. Currently, we have five floors of rental space including two ground floor retail spaces.  Having an alternative source of funds is essential for any membership or independently financed institution.

2) We championed local talent. Within our first two years of life, we started hosting industrial exhibitions nearly every year. These fairs displayed and promoted the products of local entrepreneurs and inventors and bolstered California’s infant economy by encouraging demand for local goods. They were huge fund raisers for us and aided in building our community presence especially with local entrepreneurs and the mercantile class.

3) We filled a niche in the community. While there were several libraries in San Francisco eventually the Mechanics’ Institute became one of the largest and most relevant to the growing city’s needs. We were the first library in California to actively collect materials essential for city building.  We also were the only provider of technical education in the San Francisco region for thirty years. In addition we served as a social hub – a place to meet people and network.

So now you’re probably wondering how we fill that niche today?

We no longer host fairs and now our collection is definitely more general but we have always listened closely to what our members need in terms of materials and services. For many years now our policy has been to buy nearly everything our members suggest and overtime our collection has evolved to be unique and to reflect their needs.

We are hyper-local meaning that we pay attention to the talent of our community and draw upon that talent when providing service. Whenever possible our programs highlight or support our members’ creative achievements and we make sure that the subjects of those programs are relevant to our community. We also partner with neighbor organizations so as to highlight and complement each other’s unique services.  In our eyes, our community is our universe and we aim to be the center of it.

Today our community is really the #1 asset of our MI –  fostering social connections between members is what keeps us strong and our members renewing with us year after year.

When comprehending the viability of Mechanics’ Institutes today one should consider why they were initially founded. The world may now have municipal libraries, and state supported education but their presence can only enhance the role a Mechanics’ Institute can play in its community.

The San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute for the last 160 years has served as an information provider, a champion of local ingenuity, an incubator of talent, a social network, a community center, and a force for change. All of those aims are still relevant – perhaps more so than ever.

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