Historical information

Warrnambool Public Library
The Warrnambool Mechanics’ Institute (WMI) was formed by a voluntary community group in 1863, within six years of Warrnambool’s beginnings, and its Reading Room opened in 1854. The WMI operated until 1963, at which time it was one of the oldest Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria.

Mechanics’ Institutes offered important services to the public including libraries, reading rooms and places to display and store collections of all sorts such as curiosities and local historical relics. In 1886 a Museum and Fine Arts Gallery were added to the WMI and by the beginning of the 20th century there was also a billiards room and a School of Art. By this time all Mechanics’ Institutes in country Victoria had museums attached.

Over the years the Warrnambool Mechanics’ Institute Library was also known as the Warrnambool Public Library the Warrnambool Library and the Free Library. Early funding from the government was for the “Free Library”. The inscription in a book “Science of Man” was for the “Warrnambool Public Library”, donated by Joseph Archibald in 1899. Another inscription in the book “Catalogue of Plants Under Cultivation in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens 1 & 2, 1883” was presented to the “Warrnambool Library” and signed by the author W.R. Guilfoyle.

In 1903 the Warrnambool Public Library decided to add a Juvenile Department to library and stock it with hundreds of books suitable for youth. In 1905 the Public Library committee decided to update the collection of books and added 100 new novels plus arrangements for the latest novels to be included as soon as they were available in Victoria.

In July 1911 the Warrnambool Council took over the management of the Public Library, Art Gallery, Museum and Mechanics’ Institute and planned to double the size of the then-current building.

In 1953, when Mr. R. Pattison was Public Librarian, the Warrnambool Public Library’s senior section 10,000 of the 13,000 books were fiction. The children’s section offered an additional 3,400 books. The library had the equivalent of one book per head of population and served around 33 percent of the reading population. The collection of books was made up of around 60 percent reference and 40 percent fiction. The library was lending 400 books per day.

In 1963 the Warrnambool City Council allocated the site of the Mechanics’ Institute building, which included the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, for the new Municipal Offices and the Collections were dispersed until 1971. The Warrnambool Library took over the Mechanics’ Institute Library’s holdings on behalf of the Warrnambool City Council.

Since the closure of the Warrnambool Mechanics’ Institute the exact location and composition of the original WMI books and items has become unclear. Other materials have been added to the collection, including items from Terang MI, Warrnambool Court House and Customs House.

Many of the books have been identified as the Pattison Collection, named after the Librarian who catalogued and numbered the books during his time as Warrnambool Public Librarian in the time before the Mechanics’ Institute closed.

It seems that when Warrnambool became part of the Corangamite Regional Library some of the books and materials went to its head office in Colac and then back to Warrnambool where they were stored at the Art Gallery for quite some time. Some then went to the Warrnambool Historical Society, some stayed at the Art Gallery and some were moved to Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village. The various stamps and labels on the books held at Flagstaff Hill show the variety of the collection’s distribution and origin.

The books in the collection at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village date from the 1850’s to the late 1950’s and include rare and valuable volumes. Many of the books are part of the “Pattison Collection” after the Warrnambool’s Public Librarian, Mr. R. Pattison.


The Warrnambool Mechanics' Institute Collection is primarily significant in its totality, rather than for the individual objects it contains. Its contents are highly representative of the development of Mechanics' Institute libraries across Australia, particularly Victoria. A diversity of publications and themes has been amassed, and these provide clues to our understanding of the nature of and changes in the reading habits of Victorians from the 1850s to the middle of the 20th century. The collection also highlights the Warrnambool community’s commitment to the Mechanics’ Institute, and to reading, literacy and learning in the regions, and proves that access to knowledge was not impeded by distance. These items help to provide a more complete picture of our community’s ideals and aspirations.

As with many Mechanics' Institutes in Australia, the one which operated in Warrnambool was established and overseen for many years by key individuals associated with the development of the city itself. The WMI publication collection is historically significant because of its association with local people, places and the key historical themes in the development of Warrnambool of rural development, industry, farming, education, and community. The collection documents and illustrates the changing interests, focus and tastes of Victorians, especially those in regional cities.

Generally the individual items in the collection are not particularly rare, as examples of all probably exist in other public collections in Victoria. It is primarily because there are so very few surviving Mechanics' Institute collections in Victoria, which lends this overall collection its significance.

Many items in the WMI Collection have the potential to support further research, both as individual objects and through the collection in its entirety. This material is significant for its ability to assist in the interpretation of the history of the area and adds to the general understanding of the development of the township.

Many components of the WMI publication collection complement and reinforce the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum Collection, the Warrnambool Art Gallery Collection, and that in the Warrnambool Historical Society, and also contribute to a clearer understanding of the original Warrnambool Mechanics' Institute collections. This will greatly enhance the appreciation of the few surviving Mechanics' Institute collections across Victoria, and also in New South Wales. The similarities and differences between the small number of collections that have survived can provide further insights into how the people of Victoria in general, and Warrnambool in particular, constructed a civic culture of adult learning to foster an informed citizenry.

The Warrnambool Mechanics' Institute publication collection is of both local and state significance.

Physical description

The History of Northcote
Author: William George Swift
Publisher: The Leader Publishing Co Pty Ltd
Date: 1928

Inscriptions & markings

Label on spine with typed text RA 994.51 SWI