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Mechanics Institute

Mechanics Institute
Plaque no. 12
Date of plaque unveiling
6 July 1972
(as London Mechanic's Institute)
Date of Rededication
21 October 2002
Rededicated October 21, 2002; plaque is located on 251 Dundas Street, London, Ontario (present site of Central Library, London Public Library)
Derek Newton, Middlesex County Treasurer (1972); Arthur McClelland (2002)
231 Dundas Street, London, Ontario

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Mechanics’ Institutes, the forerunners of present-day public libraries, originated in Scotland. Their founder, Dr. George Birbeck, a lecturer at Anderson’s University in Glasgow, was lacking a piece of laboratory equipment and worked with local glass and metal craftsmen to construct the apparatus. He came to realize that, apart from their mechanical skills, these artisans had little exposure to education. He, therefore, began to hold evening lectures for them.

After a period of trial and error, the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute was founded in 1823, followed by the London (England) Mechanics’ Institute. They proved to be so popular that by 1853 there were more than 700 such institutes with a membership of over 120,000.

Mechanics’ Institutes offered courses of instruction to workers in the scientific principles of their trades, but quickly expanded into many other fields. In addition to lectures, the institutes sponsored art shows and concerts and circulated a wide range of books.

The movement spread to Canada in 1831, first to Toronto and Kingston and, in 1835, to London. The local institute’s premises were originally built on the Court House Square and then were moved to Talbot Street in 1855. When this building became inadequate, the directors purchased a lot on Dundas Street for $4,500 as a site for a new building. The cornerstone ceremony was such an occasion that the railways ran special excursions for those attending. The new Mechanics’ Institute was formally opened on September 26, 1877, at a final cost of $24,000.

On November 26, 1895, London opened its first public library under the Free Libraries Act of 1882. Under this act, the Mechanics’ Institute was dissolved and its book collection transferred to the public library.