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That will be tuppence for that overdue quarto, Sir…

May 5, 2010

Montreal’s library scene is a strange one, worthy of a whole post of its own.  Sufficed to say that, due to the fractured and multi-lingual nature of the place, its library service is patchy at best.  It also has several ‘independent libraries”, public libraries which are not linked to, or funded by, any particular municipality.  One of these is Atwater Library and Computer Centre, down by the old Forum, which developed out of the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal.  Originally founded in 1828 as the Montreal Mechanics Institution, its activities were suspended in 1835 due to political unrest – not surprising since its board included Molson, Papineau, and the sheriff of Montreal. Awkward.

In 1840, post rebellion, the institute was reincorporated as Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal under the aegis of John Redpath. In 1855 it opened its own building at the corner of Great St. James and St. Peter streets, the highlight of which was its reading room.  To accompany their new library space, the institute published a snazzy new edition of their Catalogue and rules, and thanks to the miracle of digitization, they’re available to everyone online here.

I haven’t had time yet to look through the catalogue in depth, but I have looked at the rules.   What stands out is how little they’ve changed really: they have fines, and renewals, and holds… There are differences too, of course – the length of the loan period and fines were dependent on the size of the book (i.e. quarto vs. octavo) and “Any Member lending a Book to any other person shall be fined two shillings and sixpence.” – but over all it’s really clear to see how the modern public library developed out of these mechanics institute reading rooms.  It’s worth noting that, although Atwater lays claim to being the only Mechanics Institute still in operation, the fact is that most municipal libraries, such as Toronto Public Library, also developed out of, and eventually subsumed, local mechanics institutes.

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