The Mechanics' Institute

Mechanics’ Institute movement was initiated in Great Britain to provide educational opportunities for the urban working class. The Toronto institution was established on Christmas Eve, 1830, when a small group of men met in the Masonic Hall on Colborne Street. Like in Britain, the founders wished to encourage adult education by providing a library, lectures and night classes. The library they established became the beginning of the Toronto Public Library System.

As it was almost entirely dependent on its very low membership fees, it had major financial problems and had to watch every penny. By 1846 the Institute had enough money to move from rented premises and to build a second floor above the Court Street Fire Hall, but this was not entirely satisfactory. A lot on the north-east corner of Church and Adelaide Streets was purchased and the cornerstone for a new building was laid April 17, 1854. The architectural firm of Cumberland and Storm, contributed their work for gratis. Before it was finished the money that had been contributed ran out and the unfinished building was rented to the Government of Canada for four years to house the post office and the Crown Lands Department. Between the rent and a government grant of $16,000, the building was finally completed for a cost of $48,380.78. A large sum for those days. The Institute was finally able to move into its new home in July, 1861.

This Renaissance-style building at the north-east corner of Adelaide and Church Streets was impressive, with a music hall and large lecture room, as well as classrooms and the library. The entrance was on Church Street. The library was its main asset with eventually thousands of volumes. The other rooms contributed to the Institutes objectives and started organized semi- technical education in the city at a time that the general level of education was very low.

Funding constraints meant that the library had to start small. At first the collection was small and consisted of standard works on trades, crafts and popular science, which were available for home reading and study in the library. Until 1847 that there were fewer than 1,000 books. Gradually the original educational aims were weakened, as more and more novels were added to the collection. Popular demand for such fiction was deplored, but was necessary if the Institute was to remain solvent. By 1882 the library contained 10,500 books, with an annual circulation of about 27,000. Although the Institute now received an annual government grant of $400, it still had large financial problems.

In 1881, Alderman John Hallam began a campaign for a free public library. The Ontario Free Libraries Act, modelled on British legislation, was passed in 1882, the first such act in Canada. At the municipal elections on New Year’s Day, 1883, a bylaw establishing a public library was presented to Toronto voters which was passed handily and The Toronto Public Library came officially into existence, with an appropriation of $50,000 from the city. The new library, however, did not have to erect a building. In March the Mechanics’ Institute offered all its property to the Public Library. This offer was accepted and the Mechanics’ Institute ceased to exist. On 1 July 1883 the city took possession and on March 6,1884, the fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of Toronto, the Toronto Public Library was formally opened in the renovated Mechanics’ Institute building. It remained there until 1906 when the new Carnegie Public Library opened on College Street at St. George. A branch library remained in the building until 1927. From 1928 until 1948 when it was demolished, this building was used by the city welfare department.

Information from “A Glimpse of Toronto’s History.” MPLS#113 and Metro Library brochure.