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MI's New Addition: Archives and Special Collections Page

A recent addition to the Mechanics’ Institute’s website may have gone unnoticed by many of you!

We are very excited to introduce a webpage dedicated to our Archives and Special Collections (A&SC).  Not only is there a general description of those items included in the A&SC, but it also allows you to click on the direct links to documents that have already been digitized.

To locate the new A&SC webpage, click on the Books & More tab on the home page, then scroll down to the Archives and Special Collections page under Research.

MI’s Archives include 19th and early 20th century historic photos, reports, blueprints, Board of Trustee meeting minutes and documents, visitors’ registers, and other items from our Chess Club, Library, and administration.  You will find direct links to our Chess Room Visitor’s Register, the handwritten Board of Trustees minutes from 1854 -1923, and the reports of the 30 Industrial Exhibitions sponsored by MI from 1857-1899.

For members and researchers alike, there are brief descriptions of the seven resources that comprise MI’s Special Collections. These collections include: 

  • Chess Books and Journals, late 1700s-present

  • Industrial Expositions and World's Fairs, 1894-1962

  • Californiana, 1840-present

  • Western Americana, early 1800s-present

  • Arion Press Fine Print Books

  • The Civil War, 1861-present

  • Membership, Independent, and Special Libraries

For more information about MI’s Archives and Special Collections, please contact Diane Lai, Archivist, at [email protected] or Deb Hunt, Library Director, at [email protected]


Posted on Dec. 16, 2020 by Diane Lai

MI's First Female Librarian: Mary Carmody

In 1918, the world was changing for women.  For the first time, women were empowered to work in non-traditional roles outside of the home while men were fighting in World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic led to an increase in female nurses, and the Mechanics’ Institute hired its first female librarian, Mary Carmody.

Mary was born (1882) and raised in Minnesota where she attended the University of Minnesota.  In 1906, she married Frank E. Carmody and they moved to San Francisco just 4 months before the big earthquake and fire. Her son, James, was born the following year. When her husband enlisted to work as a marine engineer on ships in the Pacific during World War I, Mary went back to school to study librarianship at Mills College. It was at Mills that she met then MI Head Librarian, Frank Graves, who offered her a job as an Assistant in the Reference Department at $50.00 per month.

She was devoted to MI working her way from Reference Department Assistant to Head Reference Librarian in 1928 to the Head Librarian position in 1934. A 1964 San Francisco Examiner article, published just a few years prior to her death in 1967, described Mary as a ‘tall, erect and handsome’ woman who remembered her time at the Mechanics’ Library as ‘too busy keeping track of the 150,000 volumes, the steady stream of literary notables who considered the reading rooms their almost professional rendezvous, and buying the books to please the exacting 5,000 or so members’ to spend her free time reading until her retirement.  Some of the authors that MI counted as members during her time there included Jack London, Stewart Edward White,Charles Caldwell Dobie, and John Cowper Powys.

By 1934, when Mary became Head Librarian (shown here on the right), there were at least seven female librarians working at the library.  The women were limited to working 44 hours per week while their male counterparts worked 48 hours per week.  Mary was Head Librarian for 15 years.

Mary Carmody retired from the Mechanics’ in 1948. She was replaced by John C. Stump and it would be a quarter of a century before another female held the office of Head Librarian.


Posted on Sep. 24, 2020 by Diane Lai

Finding Unexpected Treasure in the Archives

On my best days, working as an archivist is akin to being a treasure hunter. Recently, I  discovered an unexpected treasure in the Mechanics’ Institute archives. In doing some routine work to confirm the accuracy of the Container Listing written by an intern, I found the Mercantile Library’s Visitor's Register (1853-1863). Artifacts such as the register are rare, as so many historical documents were destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake. As I carefully turned the pages, I felt a thrill at finding the signatures of several noteworthy guests, including Ulysses S. Grant and Herman Melville!

How was this possible? The Mercantile Library was established in 1853. Because of its long-running financial troubles, the Mercantile merged with the Mechanics’ Institute in January 1906. Accordingly, the Mechanics' Institute inherited Mercantile's entire collection of books, records, and ephemera. At the time of the merger, the name was changed to the Mechanics’-Mercantile Library.

Despite its financial woes, the Mercantile Library attracted many important personages, especially those who visited the city by ship (both military and civilian) and those guests signed the Mercantile's original Visitor's Register during their visits. 

Among the most noteworthy autographs that I discovered in the Visitor’s Register are:

(Capt.) U(lysses) S. Grant, 4th Infantry - visited on July 25, 1853 on his way to take charge of a company based at Humboldt Bay; a Union Army General in the Civil War and 18th President of the U.S. (1869-1877).

Don Jose Noriéga - visited on September 21, 1856; an early settler of California who, at one time, owned approximately ½ million acres of California through land grants and purchases.

John C. Frémont - visited on July 8,1859; a California Senator and the 1856 Republican nominee for President of the United States.


Rev. Thomas Starr King - visited on May 26, 1860; originally from the East Coast, in 1860 he was appointed as pastor of the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco; a noted orator and preacher, he was influential in preserving Yosemite as a reserve and a national park.

Herman Melville - visited on October 17, 1860, two days after he arrived from Boston on the clipper Meteor which was captained by his brother, Thomas; author of Moby Dick and other seafaring novels.

Librarian Diane Lai is the archivist for Mechanics' Institute. She may be reached at [email protected] or 415-393-0101 ext.126.


Posted on Sep. 22, 2020 by Diane Lai

Pandemic Favorites - Non-Fiction Staff Picks

If your favorites tend to be from the non-fiction genres, you might enjoy one of the staff picks below.

Rhonda (Library Assistant) recommends:

Wheat Belly (2011) by William Davis, M.D. 

“In this #1 New York Times bestseller, a renowned cardiologist explains how eliminating wheat from our diets can prevent fat storage, shrink unsightly bulges, and reverse myriad health problems."

Every day, over 200 million Americans consume food products made of wheat. As a result, more than half experience some form of adverse health effect, ranging from minor rashes and high blood sugar to the unattractive stomach bulges that preventive cardiologist William Davis calls "wheat bellies." According to Davis, that excess fat has nothing to do with gluttony, sloth, or too much butter: it's due to the whole grain wraps we eat for lunch.” ~from Publisher Marketing

Deb (Library Director) recommends:

BART: the dramatic history of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (2016) by Michael C. Healy 

After reading this book, I will never take BART for granted again. The effort over decades to bring BART to fruition and the ongoing expansion today are truly a feat of vision and perseverance that has impacted public transit both nationally and internationally.

Craig (Librarian, Collections Manager):

One 'pandemic favorite' that I enjoyed reading is entitled Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret (2017) by Craig Brown (print & e-book formats available). Before reading the book, I had heard that she could be quite an enigmatic character, especially given her high-handed manner, how rude and demanding she was, and her colorful life in high society.  At the same time, you have to feel sorry for her life of dashed hopes. Find out how she 'iced out' Princess Diana and humiliated Elizabeth Taylor. Reading about her misbehavior and, at the same time, her unhappiness was hard-to-put-down.

“We read to know we're not alone.”

― William Nicholson, Shadowlands

Posted on Jun. 18, 2020 by Diane Lai

Pandemic Favorites - More Staff Picks

In case you are looking for something good to read during our continuing shelter-at-home order, here are a few more suggestions from our staff:

Autumn (Library Assistant):

Some of my prime pandemic reads:

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon : the diary of a courtesan in tenth century Japan (2011), a literary memoir of court life by an aristocratic Japanese lady-in-waiting circa 1000 A.D.  Shōnagon uses narrative, poetry (mostly her own), and, famously, her short poem-like lists to describe her esoteric, aesthetically-obsessed world. Dreamy escapist reading.

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (2018). Who knew that a work of nonfiction about a library closure could be a page-turner? Orlean writes with verve, imagination, and a keen instinct for building suspense about the devastating 1986 fire that shut down the Los Angeles Public Library for seven years—as well as the importance of libraries in American lives, and the people who are passionate about them.

Poems of the day, every day! Poetry Daily, Poetry Foundation, American Life in Poetry, Academy of American Poets…somehow I’ve signed up to receive daily infusions from them all. Mostly, the poems are delicious, even the downbeat ones (lots of pandemic poetry coming out right now, not surprisingly). Plus, most are bite-size—perfect for this mass moment of scattered attention.

Steven (Librarian, Head of Technical Services) recommends:

Fantasyland: how America went haywire : a 500-year history (2017) by Kurt Andersen

I'm not sure how much I can say this is a pandemic favorite but it does provide an explanation for some of the more bizarre and outlandish behavior we have seen in many people's reactions to the shelter-in-place orders and the inexplicable refusal to accept the advice of scientists and medical professionals. Andersen traces the credulity and the resistance to evidence-based information back to colonial times, when people sailed to North America in search of gold in North America because the Spanish found gold among the Aztecs and Incas -- in Central and South America. You cannot argue with reasoning like that. Given the vast parade of examples in his book, I find it hard to argue with Andersen's central thesis: that believing in whatever nonsense most appeals to you does not come about in recent years as a result of television, or Star Wars or other recent popular culture. Instead, it's baked into the cake as part of the origins of the U.S. 

Enjoy and stay healthy!

Posted on Jun. 10, 2020 by Diane Lai

Pandemic Favorites - Staff Picks

It has been a long ten weeks since we were ordered to shelter at home and the library was closed.  However, MI staff have spent some of their non-work hours (yes, we have all continued to do library work from home) reading books, watching DVDs and TV, and listening to audiobooks.  Below are some of the staff’s favorites since mid-March:

Celeste, library manager:

Here's what I am listening to:

Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer - Spring always makes me homesick for my native New England roots. I stumbled across this title while ordering e-Audiobooks for MI. Most of what I know of Paul Revere is from grade-school textbooks and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. But as I'm learning from Fischer's excellently researched book, Paul Revere was so much more than a lone rider shouting "The British are coming!" Revere's emotional intelligence, political savvy and geographical knowledge made him a key player in the American Revolution. (MI has this book in paper format only.)

Here's what I just finished reading: 

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate - I had no idea what "Lost Friends" advertisements were until I started reading Wingate's story of how newly freed slaves placed newspaper ads to find their loved ones after the Civil War. These early inquiries must have been like a primitive social media feed, tenuous at best since many slaves could not read. For families separated by slavery, any chance at finding members was better than nothing. Just as she did in the Prayer Box and Before We Were Yours, Wingate's storytelling makes history so incredibly appealing for today's sentiments.

What I'm watching:

I Know This Much is True (HBO miniseries based on Wally Lamb's book by the same title) - An outstanding show starring Mark Ruffalo as twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Dominick struggles to take care of his brother who has paranoid schizophrenia while searching for the truth about his family's history. The first episode is streaming for free on the HBO site:  https://www.hbo.com/i-know-this-much-is-true  I would not be surprised if this show wins an Emmy award.

Lisa, library assistant:

What I am reading:

For those  who enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow (perfect quarantine reading), I would recommend Amor Towles’ earlier novel, Rules of Civility.  It explores themes of love, class, friendship and betrayal through one eventful year in the life of a young woman making her own way in 1937 Manhattan.

I also recommend Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, a novel somewhere between a literary mystery and a ghost/fairy tale set in modern-day Poland.  Tokarczuk is a Nobel Prize winning writer who has written a surprise ending worthy of Agatha Christie.

Finally, a book with a San Francisco connection, Less by Andrew Sean Greera offers a deftly funny romantic comedy that grapples with aging, loneliness, and creativity without losing its light touch.


Enjoy and stay safe!

Posted on May. 26, 2020 by Diane Lai

Browsing MI’s Virtual Archives - Chess Room Visitors Register

Besides its extensive collection of chess literature, Mechanics’ Institute has a large collection of records documenting its chess club activities, including tournament records, photographs, and the Chess Room Visitors Register dating back to 1913, which includes signatures of World Champions from Alexander Alekhine to Boris Spassky.

The Chess Room Visitors Register has been digitized and stored on the Internet Archive. You can browse it from your home computer by clicking on the link below:

•    Chess Room Visitors Register: [1913-2014]

As you digitally flip through the pages, look for the signatures of these notable chess figures (please note that the signatures are not always in chronological order as visitors seemed to sign wherever there was a blank space):


  • Page 1,   Frank J. Marshall - 1st person to sign the register,  US Chess Champion from 1909 to 1936 (7/1/1913)

  • Page 6,   Alexander Alekhine - World Chess Champion 1927-1935 & 1937-1946 (2/27/1924)

  • Page 7,   Susan Polgar - as of 1984, the top-ranked female player in the world (12/23/1986)

  • Page 7,   Mikhail Tal - World Chess Champion 1960-1961 (3/7/1991)

  • Page 51,  H.J. Ralston - editor of California Chess Reporter (2/3/1939)

  • Page 85,  Imre Kӧnig - Hungarian International Master (2/2/1953)

  • Page 125,  John Grefe - 1973 US Chess Champion; International Master (11/19/1965)

  • Page 132,  Irina Krush - 7-time US Women’s Champion; Grand Master (2/7/1999)

  • Page 134,  Anatoly Karpov - World Chess Champion 1975-1985 (2/26/2002)

  • Page 146,  Boris Spassky - World Chess Champion 1969-1972 (9/29/2006)

These are just a sampling of the distinguished individuals who have competed or visited MI’s Chess Room since 1913. Also, there are signatures of the MI Chess directors, MI member players and a host of other esteemed chess celebrities and enthusiasts. If you are a fan of chess and its fascinating history, you’ll find much to ponder in MI’s digitized Chess Room Visitors Register.

Posted on May. 20, 2020 by Diane Lai

Norman T. Whitaker: Chess Player, International Master, Con Man

A few years ago, when former Chess Director, John Donaldson, handed me the Chess Room Visitor’s Register to place into the archives, he pointed out several notable signatures of Mechanics’ Institute’s Chess Room visitors and players. Among these names was Norman T. Whitaker, whom Donaldson described as a “con man”  saying he “had something to do with extorting money and the Lindbergh baby.” With such an irresistible tagline, I was itching to learn more!

Norman Tweed Whitaker (1890-1975) was born in Philadelphia to an upper middle class family. His father, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, taught him to play chess at the age of 14. By age 28, Whitaker was reputed to be one of the strongest chess players in the nation.  He graduated from UPenn with a Bachelor’s degree in German Literature and went on to earn a law degree at Georgetown University.

While an undergraduate, Whitaker made his first recorded visit to MI on July 29, 1915.   He was a member of the 2nd oldest chess club in the United States, the Franklin Mercantile Chess Club in Philadelphia. His chess opponents in exhibition and competitive matches included some of the most famous chess players at the time, such as Emanuel Lasker, Frank Marshall, and Jose Raul Capablanca.

In the early 1920s, Whitaker, a patent attorney in Washington, D.C. and his three siblings were arrested for auto theft and insurance fraud. Whitaker was sentenced to two years in Leavenworth Prison.  Shortly after his release he made a second visit to MI in July, 1923, this time to participate in the Western Association Chess Championship.  He was eventually disbarred in 1924.

Whitaker is most infamous for his involvement in an attempt to swindle an heiress in 1932 of money purportedly to be used to ransom the kidnapped baby of Charles Lindbergh.  He conspired with a former FBI agent, Gaston Means, who had a plan to extort $35,000 from Evalyn McClean with a story that he knew the kidnappers and could arrange for the return of the baby.  Whitaker was to act as the bagman and retrieve the ransom money.  The scheme was exposed and they were arrested.  Means received 15 years in prison where he died. Whitaker served 18 months before being released.  He went on to have multiple arrests in his life and served time in several prisons including Alcatraz, where he befriended Al Capone.

His 3rd and final recorded visit to the MI Chess Club occurred on September 24, 1960.  By this time Whitaker was driving around the country in his Volkswagen Beetle playing chess full time and campaigning to be awarded the International Master designation by FIDE (which he accomplished in 1965).  He wrote an extensive article about his ‘Sixty-Five Years in American Chess’ in the December, 1969 edition of Chess Life magazine which conveniently extolled his chess triumphs and ignored the criminal element of this life.  He died at the age of 85 in Phenix City, Alabama, an active chess player till the end.

Posted on May. 6, 2020 by Diane Lai

Pandemic Favorites - What Are You Reading, Watching, or Listening To?

As we all shelter at home during the pandemic, we are finding numerous ways to entertain ourselves whether it is by reading, watching DVDs, or listening to audiobooks. I know that I am reading about 3 books per week besides doing jigsaw puzzles, cooking, binge-watching baking shows, and cleaning out closets!

So far, my favorite book has been the new fantasy novel by Sarah J. Maas, House of Earth and Blood, the first book of her Crescent City trilogy.  In a world governed by archangels, shifters, and witches, the heroine is a half-Fae, half-human twenty-something-year-old dismissed as a half-breed wannabe until the murder of her best friend forces her into a partnership with a Fallen angel to discover the identity of the killer. The novel is an intense and complicated story about friendship, loss, power, freedom and love.

Another wonderful book, that is particularly relevant, is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles . In the years following the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, when the nobility was fleeing the country and Lenin was in power, Count Alexander Rostov was sentenced to a permanent house arrest (the ultimate shelter-in-place order!) for a minor infraction in the grand hotel Metropol near the Kremlin where he was living in a suite.  After his arrest, he is moved to new accommodations in the attic of the hotel to reflect his reduced circumstances.  The story follows Rostov through his 30 years of confinement within the hotel’s walls and the amazing life he created from the relationships he formed with a multitude of characters.

What have been your favorite books, DVDs, or audiobooks during your stay at home?  Send me an email to Diane Lai at [email protected] with your recommendations, and I may include your review in a future blog or in a display of Member Pandemic Picks when the library re-opens.  (I reserve the right to edit the review/recommendation as necessary.)

Posted on May. 1, 2020 by Diane Lai

Volunteering in the Archives from Home

If you are interested in history, have access to a computer, and are going crazy with boredom at home during the pandemic, you are the ideal candidate to volunteer to transcribe MI’s historic handwritten Board of Trustee minutes into a readable document!

In the MI archives, we have nine volumes of the Board of Trustee minutes (1854-1923) that have been digitized and stored on the Internet Archive website.  While this is wonderful, these are handwritten tomes that can be difficult to read and impossible to search.  Transcribing these volumes into a typewritten document solves both of these problems.


So far, we have transcribed the first volume (1854-1857) and we are looking for volunteers who are willing to devote a few hours per week to transcribing more of these BOT minutes.  Since the minutes are digitized, and the transcription is stored on a Google Doc, all of the transcribing can be done remotely from your home (and even in your pajamas)!


The transcription process is relatively easy, although it helps if you are familiar with Google Docs, and we will be providing training via email or Zoom meetings.

If you are interested in volunteering for this opportunity, please contact Diane Lai, MI’s archivist, at [email protected].  She will be able to answer your questions and/or schedule a time for your training.

Posted on Apr. 24, 2020 by Diane Lai