Early Mechanic Institutes
The earliest Mechanics Institute was established in Great Britain during the early 1820’s as a means to address underlying class and moral issues in society. The upper and middle class believed the best way to ‘save’ the lower class communities from the grips of moral decay caused by past times such as drinking and gambling was to offer the access to knowledge otherwise held exclusively by upper class patrons, at a fee of course.
The Mechanics Institute was a hit and by 1835 the Institute found its way to Upper Canada and to Sarnia in the 1850’s. They operated as private educational facilities that charged for membership. Once fees are paid, members could enjoy access to lectures, classes in the sciences, and especially the libraries which were accessed the most.
It wasn’t long before the Institutes across Upper Canada garnered much criticism for being too exclusive and the majority of its members being inactive. With most of the members no longer accessing the facilities, the first Sarnia Institute dissolved in 1861.
Revival of the Institute
In 1873, the Institute revived on Front Street in Sarnia over W.B Clark’s General Store. Stronger interest from the local community transformed this a small somewhat dusty space into a well-stocked library by 1875. It continued to be exclusive with membership fees due. However since the library was continually accessed by members, the Institute lasted until 1884 when it once again dissolved and most of the assets, including the books, were sold.
Troubles Leading into Modern Day
The Mechanics Institute reflect important social changes occurring in 19th century Canada. Populations were growing, communities becoming more urbanized and industrialized. The thirst for self-improvement through education and yearning for resources that strengthen the community dominated popular thought. It wasn’t until 1900 under the leadership of Dr. Archibald MacLean that a public library was realized with great community pride and affection. By 1901, the access to knowledge in the library was free for all to enjoy.