The Mechanics Institute Library: a Historical Gem

March 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mark Twain, Jack London and Frank Norris wrote from there and were members there. This place still exists. Wanna join?

On the edge of the Financial District, a 101 year-old landmark building hosts the oldest library on the West Coast and one of the oldest chess clubs in the U.S.

Photo Courtesy of Mechanics Institute Library - The Mechanics Institute Library sits directly across from the Crocker Galleria, on Post Street.

“It started off as a teaching institute, the city was young and needed builders, so we started teaching here,” said Library Director, Sharon Miller. Founded in 1854, after the Gold Rush, the Mechanics Institute offered technical education and vocational training for mechanics and promoted the local industry. The term of mechanics referred to the trade work of engineers, builders and manual laborers.

While today the institute is much more generalized, it remains an intellectual and cultural center with its library collection, events, classes, exhibits and historic chess room. The library houses about 160,000 books, periodicals and audio visuals. Ebooks were recently added and are successful with members. “We go from very old, where you can get a book that was last checked out in 1922, or you can pick up an ebook for your reader,” Miller said.

Computer and research classes, writers and book discussion groups, poetry or film nights are scheduled regularly. Every Friday at 5:30, in the Library’s café, library members can watch a movie shown as part of a monthly movie series, called Cinemalit. Movie nights are free to members and and $10 to non-members.

A non-profit organization, the library is membership-based. People do not need to be sponsored to become members. Anyone can become a member by paying membership dues. The Institute does not receive grants or funding like other libraries do. Its revenue comes from membership dues and donations, office space rental and endowment funds. Membership dues range from $35 for full-time students, to $95 for individuals and up to $1,600 for a lifetime membership. But they don’t get many of the lifetime members these days.

The latest monthly count totals 4,300 members, including 1,200 lifetime members who have been members for more than 30 years. Some members have been coming here their entire life, for two or three generations as their families were members before them, said Miller. And “sometimes their card doesn’t work anymore because it’s so old! And that is something we’re proud of,“ said membership coordinator Yvon Soares. But the demographics is fairly wide with “everyone from high-school age students who come here after school, to children and young adults who come in for chess camps,” said the head librarian.

Photo Courtesy of Mechanics Institute Library - At least half of the members work in the neighborhood and discover the library while walking past it, spotting the library sign hanging off the facade, steps away from the Montgomery Bart station.

But word-of-mouth is really the number one reason bringing new people in. And the Institute is taking more of a 21st century approach to advertising and its staff is working harder than ever to bring in younger people. The marketing department has created brochures as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts. And more people in their 20s and 30s come to study with their laptop on hand, taking advantage of the library resources in a lovely quiet space to study. “A lot of students come here because they need a quiet place to be, to write their dissertation. We’re really happy that we have younger members who also want to come by. Everybody really asks for that quiet place, a place where they can have refuge for a few hours,” Soares said.

The 101-year-old Beaux Arts style building hasn’t changed much from its inception. Its history can be felt in its great light-filled reading and study rooms. A beautiful spiral staircase with marble floor and an iron handrail connects the first four floors. Within the library, each floor has two balconies filled with bookshelves where one can get lost roaming around looking for a tiny stair to go the next level up or down, as if transported into another world, into another era as if times hadn’t passed.

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