February 25, 2014

The Mechanics’ Institute: a subscription library model from the past and for the future


The famous spiral staircase at the Mechanics' Institute in San Francisco.

The famous spiral staircase at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco.

It was Benjamin Franklin’s idea. In 1731 in Philadelphia, he organized a group of his fellow inventors, mechanics, and free-spirited friends—all with limited means—in order to pool their resources and start a private library of their own. At that time, only wealthy book collectors had access to reference books, and literature, history and philosophy texts.

The Library Company of Philadelphia that Franklin eventually started—a subscription library where members paid ten shillings a year to maintain and grow the collection—still exists to this day on Locust Street in Philadelphia (today it’s non-circulating, but free and open to the public).

A century later, a group of skilled machinists, carpenters, builders, and manufacturers hoped to stimulate the growth of the brand new city of San Francisco, that had just experienced a surge in population due to the gold rush. Borrowing from Franklin’s subscription model and the principles of George Birkbeck’s mechanics institute of London, they wanted to create a library with open stacks with free access for all members.

Unfortunately the original building was destroyed in a fire after the 1906 earthquake, and so it ended up merging with the Mercantile Library Association, and dropped its technical focus. Today, the Mechanics’ Institute collection covers all subjects, with special strengths in literature, arts, history, philosophy, business, finance, and hard-to-find periodicals. It also has a rapidly growing audio-book, e-book, and music collection. Membership is required to check out books, and to join, students pay $35 per year, individuals pay $95, and families pay $150.

Members who work in downtown San Francisco can come to the library on their lunch break to read and enjoy the beauty of the stacks. Special programming includes the San Francisco Noir Literary Night, World Poetry Reading, Bloomsday, the CinemaLit Film Series and a Bastille Day Celebration.

While the subscription model was originally created to allow the common workers have same access to the elites, today, as funding for libraries is in jeopardy, perhaps subscription models make sense as a way to provide funding for collection development and to ensure that patrons are committed to the mission of the library. As writer Alex Almeida has suggested, to ensure access for all, perhaps members who are able to pay could subsidize subscriptions for others in the community.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.