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San Francisco Past & Present

The Mechanics' Institute Library

A stone's throw from the Montgomery BART station, the Mechanics' Institute, one of San Francisco's most influential early city institutions and the oldest library on the West Coast, nestles in an impressive Romanesque nine-story building. The Institute's library, founded in 1855 and at its Post Street location since 1906, is as much a part of the city's development as the Gold Rush itself.

"The Mechanics' Institute had a very seminal part in the development of the city and its development," said Laura Sheppard, who organizes the library's many events. It was "one of the earliest nonprofit institutions after the Gold Rush."

"Originally, it was founded to provide education and technology to mechanics- a catchall word for an engineer," said Sheppard, adding that the word "mechanic" has "certainly lost that sensibility over the many years."

The institute was conceived in 1854, only four years after the frontier town of San Francisco officially became a city and while the Gold Rush was in full swing. It provided much needed technological resources that allowed the city to grow into the burgeoning metropolis it is now. As a member's only library, those who wished touse the library's services initially paid $5, plus $3 quarterly dues for the privilege. And in addition to lecture series and a book collection, the institute also gave a number of historically important industrial fairs.

"All the different craft and industry started coming together under the auspices of the Mechanics' Institute at these various fairs," said Sheppard. Thirty-two fairs took place between 1857 and 1899. The allowed individuals to learn about industry, be inspired by others' progress and netted the institute enough cash to support the institute's educational programs.

The library was located at 31 Post Street until 1906, when the great earthquake and fire completely destroyed the building in which the institute was housed. Also destroyed was the library's collection, which had grown to 200,000 volumes after a merger with the local Mercantile Library, and its chess club, which Sheppard believes is the oldest functioning chess club in the country. Along with the books, the Institute's invaluable collection of California newspapers was also destroyed.

Despite the devastation, the earthquake was not the end of the Institute, which went on to build a new site down the street at 57 Post and rebuild its collection. The library reopened in 1910. Since then, the collection has become more general interest. A glance through the library's most recent newsletter reveals new acquisitions that lean heavily toward fiction, applied sciences, travel, videos and classical music CDs. The library and chess club are still members only, making the building a quiet haven in the middle of downtown, where people read, practice chess moves and move peacefully through the stacks.

But the institute also hosts many events that are open to the public, as well as members. A Friday night film series, readings and discussions of technology, literature, film and current events continue to make the institute one of San Francisco's important cultural institutions. "The whole purpose of the program is really to utilize and promote the riches and resources we have at the library; to make people aware that we are a literary venue," said Sheppard.

Upcoming is the Institute's annual pre-Bastille Day celebration, the French holiday of independence celebrated July 14. "We have such a francophile audience. We just have this French festival for days and days," said Sheppard.

This year, the event runs from July 10 to July 14, Bastille Day itself. July 10 features a reading with local author Jennifer Lee, who compiled "Paris in Mind," a collection of writings by American expats living in France; Friday, July 11 features the film "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort," a musical starring a young Catherine Deneuve; and on Monday, July 14, the institute will show a special screening of "The Shining" at the Castro Theater in a program called "Bastille Day Bizarre." Why "The Shining"? Local author Diane Johnson, who wrote the Paris-based "Le Divorce" and "Le Mariage," co-wrote the screenplay.

Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room
57 Post St.
Library hours: Mon-Thurs 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday 1 p.m.-5 p.m.
Free tours for the public noon on Wednesdays