Excavating the Basement: MI Special Collections | Mechanics' Institute

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Excavating the Basement: MI Special Collections


In 2014, the Mechanics Institute began a project to assess and evaluate the books in our basement book storage room (not open to our members) which at the time covered a broad range of topics. Out of this process, we realized that our collection, both in the basement and in the library’s reading rooms and open stacks, included a large amount of material related to the literary and cultural history of San Francisco and California. We felt that these materials were worthy of being designated as our “Special Collections”.


The Special Collections, in our original 2014 vision, were comprised of books, photographs, and ephemera related to chess, California, the history of San Francisco and Northern California, international expositions, and other subjects with direct or tangential importance to the Mechanics' Institute.


However, in 2016, with further exploration in our basement, we also re-discovered a large cache of books related to the Civil War and the role that California played in the war, a small collection of books about membership, independent and special libraries, and a medium-sized selection of fine print books (currently not in our catalogue) from the SF Presidio’s Arion Press that were donated by a former MI member.


Hence, the subject matter of our Special Collections has evolved into seven distinct areas:

  • Industrial Expositions and World’s Fairs, 1894-1962
  • Californiana, 1840-present
  • Western Americana, early 1800s-present
  • Chess Books and Journals, late 1700s-present
  • Arion Press fine print books
  • Civil War, 1861-present
  • Membership, Independent and Special Libraries


Throughout 2017, in conjunction with coordinating displays in the 2nd Floor Archival Display Case, which you should stop by and see, I will be blogging about the various Special Collections and introducing examples of the types of materials that are contained within each collection.

If you have any questions about our Special Collections, please contact Library Manager, Diane Lai at (415) 393-0118.

Posted on Mar. 2, 2017 by Diane Lai