Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Mechanics' Institute Library

Today I rode the 'N-Judah' streetcar downtown to the Montgomery Street stop in the financial district to visit the Mechanics' Institute at 57 Post Street (across from the Galleria) and find out what the Institute is all about by taking a guided tour of their library. For years I've thought this place was either a Socialist organization for the improvement of the working classes, or a gentlemans club with overstuffed wingback chairs.

I was wrong. They function like a public library, except it's strictly 'members only'.

They got their start in 1854 when the gold rush was over and SF had very high unemployment. SF needed an industrial based economy. The Mechanics Institute library was established to enable the training and education of a technically skilled working class. Later, the Civil War made trade with the East difficult, and compounded the need for industry.

The library received endowments from wealthy citizens and invested that money in books and buildings. (They've owned the 57 Post St. Building since 1910, and have income from tenants) The library's historic collection was completely destroyed by fire in 1906, but they quickly recovered and provided the engineering books necessary to those people rebuilding the city. In 1910 the library became financially secure again when it sold land to the City for $700,000. The City used this land for the Civic Auditorium. Ever since then the Institute has been self-sustaining. The annual membership dues only need to cover 20% of the operating costs. So the $95 annual membership is a bargain.

To meet the current needs of its members, the library sold their collection of technical books and now concentrate on books related to business and finance. They have a collection of fiction,magazines, periodicals and DVDs that can be borrowed. There's a lunch room, a large room dedicated to chess, and various meeting rooms. It's all quite civilized!

Categories:San Francisco

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