A MINI HISTORY OF THE ATHENAEUM AND OF THE MECHANICS INSTITUTE MOVEMENT

The Mechanics’ Institute Movement began in 1799 when Dr. George Birkbeck conducted a series of free lectures for the working men of Glasgow. The term “mechanic” at that time meant artisan or working man.  The movement spread throughout Britain and its colonies including Canada, South Africa, India and Australia as well as the United States of America.

The Movement began in Victoria with the formation of the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1839.  The Institutes served as focal points for their communities, offering libraries and reading rooms, opportunities for self education and other attractions such as lectures, meeting rooms, museums, concerts and various games.  Institute libraries were regularly patronized up until the 1950s, even though conducted on a subscription basis.  The book stock varied with the finances of the Institute committee but where towns were serviced by railways, cases of books could be obtained quarterly on loan from the Melbourne Public Library.

Nearly every town in Victoria had a Mechanics’ Institute. Today there are over 500 still operating as halls and homes for local organizations.A growing number of these are members of the Mechanics’ Institutes of Victoria Inc. (est. 1998). Six Mechanics’ Institutes continue to principally offer a lending service and half a dozen have retained a significant proportion of their historical library collections.

The Maldon Athenaeum was established in 1863 on the worldwide principles of the Mechanics’ Institutes Movement that was popular at the time.

Housed for the first few months in temporary rooms, the first permanent wooden building was erected on the Post Office Reserve by the end of 1863 and by January 1864 the new Reading Room was open and well patronized.

The present Athenaeum Hall at the rear of the Library was built as a Billiard Saloon at some time before 1905. During the 1920s and early 1930s noise levels and general boisterous behaviour caused trouble. When the Library building was destroyed by fire on Sunday 30th July1933 there was suspicion about the cause, but nothing was ever proven.

The general Maldon community was behind the rebuilding of the Athenaeum and before a year had elapsed funds had been speedily raised locally to erect the present brick building. The Athenaeum never stopped operating as temporary rooms were made available until the new building was completed. The present building is “owned” by the people of Maldon and administered by a Committee of Management under the umbrella of the State Government’s Department of Sustainability & Environment. The land is Crown Land and luckily no rates are payable on it.

Maldon Girl Guides in front of the original Library circa 1930. This is the only surviving image of the original building.


The local RSL has used the Hall as a clubroom for many years and shares it with the Library and other local groups.

There was a period of gentle stagnation when the population of Maldon dwindled after WW2 but a handful of far-sighted people kept the Library open when all other Mechanics' Institutes in country towns were closing their doors. Thanks to these few, the Maldon Athenaeum is now only one of six Mechanics' Institutes still operating as a library.

It was in the late 1990s that things really started to take off. New people came to live in the village, tourism was booming and coincidentally the Goldfields Mobile Library was discontinued. The Athenaeum came to the rescue, opening a Junior Library, buying the most wanted books for both juniors and adults. Membership soared and in 1999/2000 the State Government announced a special $10,000 grant to each of the six Mechanics' Institutes, thereby enabling much need repairs and interior improvements. The increased income has been supplemented by grants from the Bendigo Bank, The Stoneman/Rusden Foundation, the David Syme Foundation and the Mt. Alexander Shire which has enabled the purchase of beautiful new bookcases, the ability to regularly purchase new books, install reverse cycle air-conditioning, upgrade the toilet facility, commence computerisation of the collection and to properly maintain the buildings. Additionally:-

  • The collection of prints and etchings have been restored and are of great local interest.
  • The stained glass windows in the Reading Room and Junior Library are believed to have come from a Melbourne hotel that was being demolished in 1934.
  • The trophies in the Reading Room are from the Maldon Marching Girls and have been displayed at the Athenaeum since May 1960.
  • The commemorative wall hanging made by the Maldon Village Quilters was designed by Cecilia O’Byrne, inspired and commissioned by Nancy Farley and family in 2003 on the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Maldon and in special recognition of the major contribution to the town by the women of the Maldon Goldfield.

Currently in 2017 The Athenaeum is highly successful as Maldon’s only Library. It is held in high repute by all while other bigger and more wealthy libraries regard the work of the 30-plus volunteers as quite amazing.

 
     
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