The author follows the example of many aspirational working men in the 19th century by joining a mechanics’ institute – one of a handful that have survived. By Anita Punton.

The Footscray Mechanics’ Institute Library

An elderly man in a suit playing a game of pool.
Footscray Mechanics’ Institute committee member Doug Clymo takes his shot.
Credit: Supplied

At the foot of the State Trustees tower in Footscray, opposite an Ethiopian cafe and a Mexican chicken shop, there is a brick and stucco building that wouldn’t look out of place in an English village.

Despite the sign on its wooden portico – “Footscray Mechanics Institute Library” – I always assumed the building was like the vast majority of mechanics’ institute buildings all over the country: repurposed into a community hall or a venue for AA meetings or Zumba classes. However, according to a flyer I found in my letterbox recently, the Footscray Mechanics’ Institute is still very much alive and has been since 1857.

Also known as athenaeums or schools of arts, mechanics’ institutes originated in Scotland in the early 19th century to help skilled working men (“mechanics”) supplement their limited formal education, usually by means of access to a library and lectures.

Drawing heavily on the Victorian-era preoccupation with self-improvement – think of literary characters such as stonemason Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure, or insurance clerk Leonard Bast in Howard’s End – the movement flourished in industrial towns such as Manchester and Birmingham until World War II.

Australia took to the movement early, with the Van Diemen’s Land Mechanics’ Institution opening in 1827. It’s estimated there were about 2000 institutes across the country; of these, about half were in Victoria.

Each institute adapted to its community’s particular needs. A library usually remained central to its purpose, but some were more concerned with providing entertainment rather than education – somewhere for locals to go that wasn’t the church or the pub.

I’m keen to see what is going on in the two-storey cottage in Footscray but I have to wait a few minutes for the doors to be unlocked. “There’s a needle exchange around the corner,” explains librarian Cameron Borg. “It’s like any inner-city suburb, it has its characters. We can’t put our little street library outside either, because someone always vandalises it or throws the hardbacks at our windows.”

Once inside the library, I’m transported to an oasis of antique charm. High-ceilinged and filled with light, it retains many original features of the 1913 building, including the doors with signage to both the ladies’ and gentlemen’s reading rooms. Upstairs, there is a beautiful billiards/snooker room with two full-sized tables.

I pay $10 for an annual membership and borrow the latest Ian Rankin and an obscure Muriel Spark. Each book has a paper “Due Date” slip on the last page. As Borg wields his date stamp, it makes a satisfying, nostalgic crunch.

I ask if Borg gets tired explaining what a mechanics’ institute is. “Yeah, I still get people ringing to ask if they can book their cars in for a service,” he laughs.

He tells me about the institute’s heyday, when the billiards, cards and chess rooms would be full of members and the library would still be busy at 10.30 on a Friday night. Cribbage tournaments, travelling waxworks shows and, intriguingly, male-only “Smoke and Pound” evenings, are all recorded in the institute’s archives.

How exactly has this little relic of the past managed to survive? “That’s something to ask Doug,” says Borg.

Committee member Doug Clymo is a gentlemanly, quick-witted 95-year-old. When we meet, he is returning a book to the library. In the course of our conversation he mentions completing an arts degree (“just because I was interested”), his painting lessons and how he recently read a book about artificial intelligence. I suspect he is exactly the sort of self-directed learner the founders of the mechanics’ institute movement had in mind.

It was the promise of a game of billiards that first brought Clymo to the institute back in the 1960s, but it was the fellowship with the men and women he met there that kept him coming back.

At the time, the FMI’s popularity was already on the wane. The advent of television and mass car ownership meant people were choosing to spend their leisure time differently.

It endured several lean decades, both financially and in terms of membership.

“We had to scrimp, had to watch every single cent,” Clymo says. “We only bought books at an absolute minimum, and everything was done by volunteers.”

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, the current committee decided they were finally in a position to hire a qualified librarian.

Borg, who had managed libraries in Yeppoon and Biloela in rural Queensland, was excited by the potential of the library, but knew he had to make some changes.

“The entire back wall was just Mills & Boon,” he remembers. “They had to go. And for some reason, all the historical fiction was hidden in a back room. The entire non-fiction section was shelved by author, rather than the Dewey decimal system.”

Crime fiction makes up most of the collection, including many vintage hardbacks with fabulously lurid cover art.

“We’ve got regulars who come from the other side of Melbourne because they can’t find these books anywhere else,” Borg says. “Most public libraries cull books if they haven’t been borrowed in three or four years. But we’re able to build up a complete bibliography of an author. We’ve got complete sets of Agatha Christie and Alistair MacLean, for example.”

Borg is also building up the classics section. “You generally won’t find classics in your local library anymore, unless it’s a movie or TV tie-in.”

Whatever initiatives he proposes must be approved by Clymo and his fellow committee members – a significant percentage of whom are in their 80s and 90s.

“When I started in 2020, they were still writing cheques and charging 50 cents to hire a billiard table for an hour!” says Borg. “I managed to convince them they could charge at least $1. But they still agonised over it.”

The committee has been open to all of his ideas, provided they fit in with the institute’s stated purpose of the diffusion of knowledge and healthy social contact among members. He is delighted they have such a progressive attitude.

Borg, who’s played in hardcore punk bands since the 1980s, has added books on The Cure, The Clash and heavy metal music to the collection. He’s put the institute on X, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. It now has more than 500 members.

Recently, a young woman inquired about starting a chess club and Borg hopes to attract more of those Millennials whose priorities have shifted to more wholesome, non-digital pursuits, such as reading and board games.

He is also working on diversifying the library to reflect the local community, building the Hindi and African crime fiction collection and acquiring English-language versions of Vietnamese and African literature. To date, he has signed up a handful of African members.

Clymo has been active within the local multicultural community for decades, having spent most of his working life as a maths teacher at nearby Sunshine West High School. He is also enthusiastic for new members, particularly if they can play billiards with him.

He makes me promise to come back so he can teach me the ins and outs of the game. “Always grab every opportunity to learn something new,” he says emphatically.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Long shelf life".

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