Mechanics' Institutes Established first in England during the 1820s, Mechanics' Institutes began as voluntary associations of working men seeking self-improvement through education. The community-based institutes offered evening lectures, lending libraries and periodical reading rooms. Members were supposed to learn the underlying scientific principles of their work as well as the general value of "rational information." The concept spread quickly elsewhere, including British N America where the Montreal Mechanics' Institute opened in 1828 and the York Mechanics' Institute in 1830. Other institutes followed, especially in Ontario but also in NS and BC. In 1895 Ontario included 311 institutes with a total of 31,195 members. Internal contradictions, however, as well as the development of the labour movement, public libraries and ADULT EDUCATION prevented the institutes from maintaining a viable identity into the 20th century.
Despite the name, the central figures who developed the Mechanics' Institutes in Canada were rarely manual workers. Rather, the institutes were controlled by shopkeepers, doctors, ministers and small manufacturers who sought activities for themselves, and more importantly, the growing number of urban wage-earners. The institutes emphasized Victorian discipline and morality while refusing to consider social, economic and political questions. Much debate concerned the reading rooms and libraries which most members frequented for newspapers and popular fiction rather than the works of science, art and religion promoted by institute directors. In Ontario, this debate was transferred to communities at large in 1895 when the provincial government used legislation to transform the institutes into public libraries. The Mechanics' Institutes thus reflected important features of 19th-century Canada: the constant anxiety of local leaders about social order and stability; the widespread hope of self-improvement through education; and the increasing popular thirst for reading material.