The Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute: Part 2

“Its object shall be to instruct its members in the principles of the Arts and in the various branches of Science and useful knowledge.”  Such was the stated goal of the Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute, the city’s first library, at the time of its founding in 1843.  In the most recent post, we took a brief look at the history and workings of the Mechanics’ Institute, but now we turn our attention to the actual books available in the Institute’s collection.  What was considered “useful knowledge,” and was there any room in there for reading for pleasure?  Answers below the jump…

We are in some luck in pondering what was in Peterborough’s first library, as the 1853 catalogue of the Mechanics’ Institute has survived.  It shows a collection of about 500 titles, including periodicals, comprising 800 individual volumes.  And indeed, the collection as a whole has a very practical, educational, bent to it.  The fields of history and biography (of all eras, but particularly European, American, and Classical) are very well-represented, as are numerous scientific fields, and there was a healthy section on basic engineering as well.  The other area in which the Institute’s library was very strong was that of travel literature — including both books on faraway places and accounts of famous voyages of exploration.  Somewhat less well-represented, but still “there” in significant numbers, were works of philosophy and theology.


Captain Frederick Marryat, several of whose novels are listed in the 1853 cataloge.  Not among those, interestingly, is his 1844 children’s novel Settlers in Canada.  (Image Source)

The Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute library also contained several collections of poetry and a number of works of fiction.  That was clearly not the main focus of the institution, but if you were looking for reading along those lines, you could find it in limited quantities at the Institute’s library.  Interestingly, the collection does not seem to have included any of Shakespeare’s plays, although there was a collection of his poetry.

What you could not find, beyond a couple of titles, was anything that might be considered “children’s literature.”  That makes some sense, as the Institute was designed with adult education (and particularly male working-class adult education — more on that in a bit) in mind.  But also conspicuous, and less understandably so, by their (almost) complete absence from the library were works on what was then the Province of Canada.  And there seems to be absolutely nothing at all in the area of “local interest.”   Catharine Parr Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada had been published in 1836, but is not present in the 1853 catalogue, nor does the library seem to have had a copy of George Arundel Hill’s Guide for Emigrants.

Here, then, is a sample of what the Mechanics’ Institute library had in its collection in 1853.  Many of the works are entered in the catalogue in shorthand, making it a bit difficult to determine exactly what they were (Dionysius Lardner, for example, wrote a number of works on steam power and steam engines).  In the list below, items in quotation marks are shown exactly as they appear in the 1853 catalogue (I have given the catalogue number for each as well).

  • #1: “Penny Magazine.” (7 volumes)
  • #17: “Cyclopedia of English Literature.”
  • #47: “[Dionysius] Lardner on Steam.”
  • #78: Wilman’s edition of Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  • #102: Thomas Dick, Practical Astronomer.
  • #111: “Bancher on Horsemanship.”
  • #123: Elizabeth Starling, Noble Deeds of Women.
  • #140: Plutarch’s Lives.
  • #155: “Burns’ Poetical Works.”
  • #175: Aaron Bancroft, The Life of George Washington.
  • #177-#203: Sir Walter Scott, “Waverly [sic] Novels.” (27 volumes)
  • #205: “Life of Mozart.”
  • #246: “Principles of Eloquence.”
  • #251: “Renwick’s Chemistry.”
  • #254: “Stories for Young Persons.”
  • #278: “Nubia and Abyssinia.”
  • #292: “History of the Elephant.”
  • #299: “Agricultural Chemistry.”
  • #302: “Trees of America.”
  • #306: “Empress Josephine.”
  • #313: Eliza Jane Cate, A Year With the Franklins: Or, to Suffer and be Strong.
  • #341: R.H. Dana, Two Years Before the Mast.
  • #382: “Expedition to Russia.”
  • #412: “Ruins of Ancient Cities.”
  • #416: “Venetian History.”
  • #436: “Parry’s Voyages.”
  • #451: “Paley’s Theology.”
  • #470: Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii.
  • #480: Captain Marryat, The Pacha of Many Tales.
  • #507: “Christmas Tales.”
  • #651-#709: “Quarterly Review from 1837.”
  • #719: “Herschel’s Astronomy.”
  • #744: “Drainage of Buildings.”
  • #747: “Bricks and Tiles.”
  • #800: “Statutes of Canada.” (multiple volumes)

The Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute was officially chartered, and came under the purview of the provincial Dept. of Agriculture, in 1868.  That did change some things in terms of the makeup of the collection, as government funding came with some strings attached.  In the Institute’s 1872 Annual Report, the Library Committee noted:

“[We] have been careful to exclude from the The Library the light literature or sensational works which so abound at the present time; and while selecting the works of [Sir Walter] Scott, [Charles] Dickens, [James] Grant, and such writers, it has always been [our] aim to exclude any book that would have an immoral tendency.”

More bluntly, the Library Committee stated straight out that it was “not allowed to buy novels, but rather works of a scientific or standard sort.”

What prompted those comments was the fact that the Library Committee had found itself caught in something of a quandary.  As noted above, the Mechanics’ Institute membership had been heavily male since its founding, but by about 1870 it was seeing a rapidly increasing number of what the report refers to as “lady readers.”  And by 1872, the “lady readers” were speaking out, having found at the library “a class of reading for which they care little.”  What the women members of the Institute particularly wanted more of, per that 1872 report, were religious writings and works of fiction.  The Library Committee was receptive to these complaints, recommending that the next year’s Committee members “do what they can to meet the wants of our lady readers in these respects.”

In fact, the Mechanic’s Institute library, government disapproval or no, had been cheerfully adding works of fiction even after being chartered.  An 1871 invoice from A.B. Kidd, Bookseller, records the Institute’s purchase of four “Cooper’s novels” (presumably James Fenimore Cooper), another three by Wilkie Collins (whose works definitely fell into the “sensational” category in those days), and famous titles like Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss.  There is not as much evidence, at least from the invoices I have looked at, that the Institute was as energetic about meeting the religious reading needs of its members, although the purchase of Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia, also in 1871 and also from A.B. Kidd, would have checked both the “Religion” and “Fiction” boxes.



At the Back of the North Wind, 1st ed.  (Image Source)

The Library Committee was also taking steps at this time to increase its collection of works for younger readers.  The same 1871 invoice that includes Hypatia shows the purchase of a book on Robin Hood, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (likely, although not certainly, an edition for children), and the newly-published At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald.  That last title may have proved popular; the Institute bought another copy of it in 1879.

Nor were the subject areas that had earlier been the Mechanics’ Institute’s main focus neglected.  Classical literature appears among the purchases in the form of works of Homer, Herodotus and Plato, while history is represented in titles like England Before the Conquest and Famous Ships of the British Navy.  A large number of scientific titles were being purchased, including, in 1871, Sir John Herschel’s Lectures on Scientific Subjects and the Lay Sermons of Thomas Henry Huxley, along with more standard reference works (Huxley’s inclusion is an interesting one; he was a fierce disciple of Charles Darwin, and one wonders if the purchase of his book is related in any way to the library’s seeming reluctance to buy many religious works).  And while there was not quite as much purchasing of travel literature, such titles as Nathaniel Holmes’ Voyage of the Paper Canoe did enter the library’s holdings.

There was still very little in the way of “Canadiana” in this era — at least as the far as the books were concerned.  It was a slightly different matter when it came to the periodicals, but that we will discuss in Thursday’s piece.  And I would like to again state my gratitude to the (modern) Peterborough Public Library, for helping me get access to the necessary historical documentation for this post.

Thank you for reading!


A page from the 1853 Peterborough Mechanics’ Institute library catalogue.  (Image Source)

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