Brief history of Atwater Library

During the summer and fall of 2007 I was a newly arrived immigrant to Montreal. I attended open mics around the city and gave readings of my poetry. One day, sudden as a flash of lightning, the name Terry Atwater shot through my mind. I don’t know exactly know why this name produced itself, apart from the centrality of the toponym (place-name) Atwater (which I happen to like for its crisp, dactylic Anglo-Saxon sonority — don’t you?) in Montreal. At open mics I gave this as my name on sign-up sheets, such that it was my ‘stage-name.’ I could not have predicted in 2007 that I would five years later be a volunteer at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre. This post presents a condensed history of that institution. The historical information that I present is taken from a fifty-page pamphlet published in the mid-1970s that is kept behind the circulation desk.

Atwater crest compressed
The crest of the Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal, featuring the Baconian equation of Knowledge and Power, decorates the publication from which my information comes.

Some background information about Mechanics’ Institutes is available from Wikipedia. During the 19th century in Great Britain and in North America, for enterprising young men who were often without means, Mechanics’ institutes were seen as a desirable alternative to the male drinking culture widely prevalent in saloons, taverns, and pubs. Starting around the end of the nineteenth century, institutes began to adapt to accommodate the wider population, including first women and then children, many eventually evolving (like the Atwater) over many decades into the public libraries we know today.

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Atwater’s arches ‘then’ and now, its skylight and atrium. Photos by Jacob Siefring.

The Atwater Library is the oldest lending library in Canada. The library was not always known by this name, nor was it always at 1200 Atwater Ave as it is today.

The Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal, later known as the Montreal Mechanics’ Institution, had its founding moment on November 21, 1828, when a meeting was held at the home of Reverend Henry Esson. Esson’s idea was to found an institute the aim and objects of which would be to see to the instruction of its members in the arts and in the various branches of science and useful knowledge. 

Punch ID compressed
Books were marked as property of the Institute with a distinctive perforation. What’s this method called, exactly? This book was deaccessioned from the collection and I bought it for fifty cents.

Punch ID detail

Slowly at first,  with the support of sugar magnate John Redpath and other enterprising members of the Montreal community, the institute gathered steam. In March of 1840 the members-elect approved the Constitution and by-laws and agreed upon the following scale of fees:

Life members: 5 £ in cash; or 7 £, 10 s. in books or apparatus

Annual subscriptions: 15 s.

Quarterly subscriptions: 3 s. 9 d.

Sons and apprentices of members: 1 s. 3 d. on a quarterly basis

Course offerings in reading, writing, arithmetic, French, and architectural, mechanical, and ornamental drawing were open to sons and apprentices of members. The institute’s motto was

To make a Man a Better Mechanic and the Mechanic a Better Man. 

Incorporation came in 1845. A short decade later, on May 21, 1854, the institute’s new building at the corner of Great St James St and St Peter St was opened.

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A drawing displayed in the stairwell of the library depicting a packed lecture hall at the library/institute’s former location..

This building was known for its large lecture hall, known around Montréal as Mechanics’ Hall.

Atwater illustration

George DawsonJohn Henry Pepper, inventor of the Pepper’s ghost illusion, and many others spoke there in their time. Performer Emma Lajeunesse, later be known as Emma Albani, had her debut there at the young age of seven.

A new building was selected, purchased, and went into operation around 1920.

The Atwater Library and Computer Centre, located at 1200 Atwater Ave., in Westmount, Québec. Photograph by Jacob Siefring.

In 1962, The Institute changed its name and officially became the Atwater Library, as the name Mechanics’ Institute was ‘misleading to the present generation.’ Today the library is an active community hub and a vital resource for its members. If you’re in Montreal, stop by and have a look around. Or visit the library’s website — more on its history here.

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1 Comment

  • Hi Jacob. Love this post. One minor note to add. The current building was actually built by the organization from the proceeds to the sale of the previous building. Part of what makes this building so special is that it was built to be a Mechanics’ Institute. Thus all the medallions on the outside of the building representing the different trades.


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