San Francisco Mechanics' Institute

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Front of Mechanics' Institute building
Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room

The Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room is a historic membership library, cultural event center, and chess club in the Financial District of San Francisco, in the U.S. state of California at 57 Post Street. Founded in 1854[1] to serve the vocational needs of out-of-work gold miners, the institute today serves readers, writers, downtown employees, students, film lovers, chess players, and others.


Though initially a library dedicated to the mechanical arts, in 1906, the institution merged with the Mercantile Library Association, and dropped its technical focus. Its collection today covers all subjects, with special strengths in literature, arts, history, philosophy, business, finance, and hard-to-find periodicals. The Mechanics' Institute also has a rapidly growing audio-book, e-book, and music collection.

The Institute encourages members to recommend materials for purchase, attend workshops, and participate in literature and film discussions groups. Currently, five book discussion groups talk about a variety of genres, and three writers’ groups offer peer-to-peer support and advice.


The Mechanics' Institute Events department presents over fifty author events a year. These offer a broad spectrum of authors and themes, including fiction and non-fiction, with an emphasis on American and world history, arts and architecture, biography, science and technology, social trends, economy, and culinary arts. Special Programs, such as the San Francisco Noir Literary Night, World Poetry Reading, Bloomsday, and a Bastille Day celebration are popular annual events.

The CinemaLit Film Series presents 35 films a year, featuring classic American, retro and foreign films. The evening begins with introductions by prominent film critics, writers, and reviewers, with a discussion after each film. CinemaLit draws an eclectic, diverse audience with many film buffs dedicated to the Friday night film salon.

Author events, CinemaLit and Special Programs are open to members and the public. Free attendance at most events and CinemaLit are a benefit of membership.


The Mechanics' Institute building houses the oldest continuously operating chess club in the United States. Many world champions have visited the chess room, from Emanuel Lasker in 1902 to Boris Spassky in 2006. In 2009 one of the chess club's young students, 12-year-old Daniel Naroditsky, won the World Championship for his age group. The chess club offers tournaments and other activities for all player levels.


Membership in the Mechanics' Institute is open to the public. Each membership offers the full services of the library and chess room, and free admittance or discounts to special events, lectures, book discussion groups, classes, and other activities.


In 1848, the discovery of gold lured people from all over the world to California. By 1853 most surface gold was mined out, pushing the town of San Francisco into economic decline. A flood of former miners had no jobs, skills, or prospects. The Mechanics' Institute began in 1854, with four books, a chess room, and a mission to start a vocational school. At this time, California had no colleges or universities, and no public libraries. (The San Francisco Public Library did not open until 1879.) Within a few years, the Mechanics' Institute offered classes in such subjects as woodworking, mechanical drawing, industrial design, electrical science, applied mathematics, and ironwork. The institute's importance in California technical education reached a pinnacle in 1868, when the California legislature granted a charter for the establishment of the University of California. The institute participated in the fledgling university's first years, hosting technical classes and presenting lectures on many topics. It helped develop the curriculum, and had a seat on the Board of Regents until 1974.

Aside from educational endeavors, the institute also promoted industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. Beginning in 1857, on land donated by land baron James Lick, the institute hosted industrial fairs that displayed inventions, art, and products of all kinds to thousands of visitors. Awards were presented to winning exhibitors—many of whom are still in business, including Levi Strauss, Singer Sewing Machines, Goodyear Tire, Boudin Bakery, Heald Business College, Gump's, and Ghirardelli Chocolate.[2][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a short history of the Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco by Taryn Edwards
  2. ^ Reinhardt, Richard. Four books, 300 dollars and a dream: an illustrated history of the first 150 years of the Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco : how a pioneer reading room for the education of craftsmen became a major library, research facility and social center in the heart of a busy city, San Francisco : The Institute, c2005OCLC 76791892
  3. ^ Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room | Atlas Obscura

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Coordinates: 37°47′20″N 122°24′11″W / 37.788844°N 122.403042°W / 37.788844; -122.403042