The Atwater Library traces its origins back to 1828, when the first mechanics’ institute established in continental British North America was formed in Montreal. Today, with its official name, Atwater Library and Computer Centre, it is the sole survivor of the many mechanics’ institutes established in Canada in the 19th century. The rest were either closed or merged into public library systems. The Atwater Library and Computer Centre carries on proudly, aware of its traditions, but focused on the future.
In 1828, some prominent Montreal citizens formed the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution because they saw a need to educate workers for the emerging industries of the growing city. Patron of the new organization was Sir James Kempt, governor of Lower Canada and first president was Louis Gugy, sheriff of Montreal. Vice-presidents were industrialist John Molson; merchant Horatio Gates; Louis-Joseph Papineau, speaker of the Assembly of Lower Canada, and the Assembly’s representative from the west end of the city; and Rev. Henry Esson, educator and Church of Scotland pastor of the St. Gabriel Street Church. Active members appear to have been mainly artisans, craftsmen and shopkeepers who were employers.
Patterned after mechanics institutions that had already sprung up in England and Scotland, the aim of the new Montreal Institution was, according to Rev. Esson, “to see to the instruction of its members in the arts and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge.” Rather than classroom activities, the institution ran a lecture program, organized weekly information sessions and had a library and reading room.
It was a time when the building trades were expanding rapidly, highlighted by the construction of the Lachine Canal and Notre Dame Church. The population of Montreal was about 23,000, and the principal commercial and social centre of the city was St. Paul Street. Many educational institutions were developing at the time, including McGill University which began teaching classes in the arts and in medicine in 1829.
By 1834, pre-Rebellion political unrest in Montreal, as well as rivalries based on religion and educational objectives, led to a suspension of activities of the Institution. The last meeting was held on March 24, 1835. more…
©2016 Linda Sullivan-Simpson
The Past Whispers
All Rights Reserved