The Library in 1928. A Charles Burrows photograph
THE LAUNCESTON MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE COLLECTION 1842 - 1945
THE TREASURE WITHIN
The iconic Launceston Mechanics’ Institute building may have been demolished 45 years ago, but its book collections have largely survived. They represent one of the most significant Mechanics’ Institute collections remaining in Australia.
This heritage collection, together with its records, became the property of the Launceston City Corporation in 1945, and the State Library was given responsibility for their management. Thanks to the LCC’s foresight in mandating that the collection be held in Launceston, these materials have been preserved and are now cared for jointly by staff of the QVMAG and Launceston LINC and the volunteer organisation Friends of the Mechanics’ Institute.
LAUNCESTON MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE
The LMI was founded in 1842, becoming the progenitor of the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Launceston Public Library and various music, art, debating, drama and literary societies. At its height of popularity in the late 1880s it had a library of over 20,000 books and periodicals, as well as government gazettes, almanacs, atlases, newspapers, works of art, museum items, a Brindley organ (now in the Albert Hall) and one of the finest buildings in Launceston, situated in the heart of the city.
Changing over the years to serve the changing needs of its expanding local community, the LMI narrowed its role to that of a library, and its other functions were taken over by other institutions and societies. The famous old building was renamed the Launceston Public Library in 1929 and in 1971 it was demolished to be replaced by the new Northern Regional Library. The books and other materials gathered over more than a century by the Institute had become increasingly isolated from the working life of the modernised State collection. Most of these original materials, of which more than 20,000 books and 2,000 periodicals remained, were sequestered away in Stack shelving or boxed in a warehouse. These, now in the process of being reviewed and catalogued, together with records and artefacts associated with the Institute from 1842 to 1945, constitute the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute Collection.
The Collection is rich in both fiction and non-fiction. There are large numbers of three-volume novels by popular authors now largely forgotten as well as works by famous authors such as Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Hardy and George Eliot. Its non-fiction covers travel, biography, religion, politics, the arts and the sciences, with many notable volumes charting the progress of thought during the Nineteenth Century.
In its totality, the Collection tells a fascinating story of the intellectual and recreational pursuits of the Launceston community during a vital period of its growth.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE COLLECTION
In 2015 a professional significance assessment was conducted of the LMI Collection by Dr Susan Marsden under the terms of Library Australia’s Community Heritage Grant scheme. Her report was glowing: we had indeed a local treasure – and more. Her report concluded:
The Launceston Mechanics Institute collection is a historically significant collection of high value.
This significance assessment has confirmed that the size, quality, scope, age and provenance of the LMI collection places its importance equal to or above any similar collection in Australia, and hence its national significance. The LMI collection is unique and of high significance as it retains a substantial proportion of the institute library amassed over a century from the formative years of a major non-metropolitan city, which was crucial to the social and cultural development of Launceston, and was associated with major historical figures not only in Tasmanian but also in Australian history. Under this historic criterion the FOLMI Collection is also of high research significance in a wide range of historical subjects.
The LMI Collection is not only the most substantial and comprehensive Institute library to have survived in an Australian regional centre from before 1850, but appears to be the most substantial and comprehensive library collection to have survived from the entire period of the flourishing of mechanics institutes in Australia, between the 1840s and the 1940s.
The LMI collection is primarily of historical significance as a rich and now rare set of books and periodicals dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that comprised the larger part of the library of a major mechanics institute in an important regional city, and illustrating the reading habits, information sources and connections of a colonial and non-metropolitan city, and its international and British empire connections.
This is also the last intact collection of books from the major cultural institution in Launceston’s history. The Launceston Mechanics Institute – and hence, the LMI collection – was significant not only because of its early date, longevity and scale, but because the associated records of the LMI have survived (now held in QVMAG) and that rich documentation is supported by several published histories, as well as unpublished research and news reports.
FRIENDS OF THE LAUNCESTON MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE (FOLMI)
In 2013, in preparation for the reorganisation and refurbishment which has now taken place at the Launceston LINC, there was a plan to disperse or dispose of a major part of the LMI Collection. The Friends of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute, was formed as a response to the threat that a major portion of the LMI Collection could have been lost.
The organisation brings together individuals with the enthusiasm, interest and most importantly the expertise to organise, research and maintain this highly significant collection for the benefit of the Launceston community, local historians and the wider circle of researchers into Australian cultural history.
The aim of the Friends of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute Inc. is to establish and maintain a working research Launceston Mechanics’ Institute Collection by;
· locating, selecting, organising, cataloguing and preserving existing materials once the property of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute between 1842 and 1945;
· liaising with local, state and national government agencies and with relevant interest groups to promote the significance of the LMI Collection;
· establishing a permanent home for the LMI Collection, in particular those parts not integrated with local and state government agencies;
· providing broad public access to the catalogue of the LMI Collection and enabling direct access to researchers needing to use the Collection.
Members of the public are invited to join FOLMI – it is made up entirely of volunteers who have an interest in furthering the aims of the group – and there is no membership charge. Current and projected activities include the reorganisation and indexing of records held in QVMAG, training to catalogue the collection on the Australian National Bibliographic Database, research articles on notable features of the collection and its history, and digitising the catalogues and reports of the LMI.