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The Atwater Library/Mechanics’ Institute: Why Should I Care?

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During Quebec’s political turmoil of the1970s, when family, friends and colleagues departed Montreal in droves, it seemed for some of us who remained as if life’s anchors, and life’s fun, had been yanked away.

larger_Braganza005.jpgIt became clear that to remain viable, life in Montreal would require more effort that it had in the past. New work and new friends were needed. A new emphasis was made on becoming bilingual parents to bilingual or trilingual children, and to participating actively in Francophone culture. At the same time, it seemed that our Anglophone heritage—being an important part of Quebec’s history—would be submerged, unless sustained efforts were made by remaining Anglophones to encourage a continuing identity in Montreal and Quebec, while becoming more pluralistic in approach.

Rev. Esson.jpgLooking back

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. Patterned after mechanics institutes in Scotland and England, the aim of the new Montreal institution was, according to its founder, the Rev. Henry Esson, "to see to the instruction of its members in the arts and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge." The MMI organized weekly information sessions on a wide variety of topics, and had a library, reading room, and museum. In 1840, it amalgamated with the new Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal, and an emphasis was placed on lectures and on classes in mechanical and architectural drawing, as well as on the library and reading room.

Logo, MIMALCC.jpgThe contributions of the early members of the Mechanics’ Institute to its role in the development of adult education and cultural activities in Montreal have been little recognized, except for the high-profile activities of men such as John Molson, Louis-Joseph Papineau and John Redpath.

Of course, these three men had a major impact on Montreal’s development, and on the Mechanics’ Institute, but so did many other MMMI/MIM members, as well. These included: Rev. Esson, Dr. A. F. Holmes and Wilfrid Bovey in education; Edward Maxwell, William Hutchison and Hector Munro in building; John Ostell, William Footner and Alexander Cowper Hutchison in architecture; the Tate brothers in shipyards; John Spence and the Castle brothers in stained-glass windows;Rutherford, Wm., Jr..jpg William Watson and Alexander Walker Ogilvie in flour milling; Robert Mitchell, George Prowse and Charles Garth in building fittings; William Dow and James Dawes in brewing; Stanley Clark Bagg, Francois-Antoine LaRoque and Jules Quesnel in business; and William Rutherford, father and son, in construction and lumber.

Looking forward

In the early 1980s, the organization changed its name to Atwater Library and Computer Centre to better reflect its evolving activities.

larger_Atwater Library 1.jpgHaving been operating for more than 180 years, the Atwater Library and Computer Centre has recently achieved new significance in the west end of downtown Montreal, with subscribing members from all over the island of Montreal. The library has new focus areas; the computer centre facilities are up to date; computer courses are designed for targeted groups, including disadvantaged youth; and a free lunchtime speaker series brings a variety of people into the library every week in the winter season. Rental space is provided for several non-profit organizations, and there is auditorium meeting space for small community groups.

Mechanics Hall sketch.jpg
In 2002, application was made for the Library’s 1920 building, at the corner of Atwater and Tupper, to be declared a National Historic Site, and this was achieved a few years later. In November 2009, a $425,000 federal government cost-sharing grant through Parks Canada was announced for building renovations.

More information on the Atwater Library can be obtained at www.atwaterlibrary.ca and at www.montrealhistory.org.