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160 Years and Stronger Than Ever!

On December 4 at the bi-annual Members’ Meeting, I gave a talk on the founding of our Mechanics’ Institute and the strange but wonderful times that provided the impetus for its birth. The decision to found our Institute was formerly made on December 11, 1854 when two scores of men in the building trades met in the tax collector’s office to thrash out a plan to create a Mechanics’ Institute similar to ones that existed in the Eastern United States, Australia, and Great Britain.

From the beginning, the directors knew what sort of Institution they wanted:

  • A library with open stacks so all the books were accessible to the members
  • A game room where members could spread out their chess and checker boards
  • Classes that would stretch the mind and teach new skills
  • To be an organization that welcomed everyone regardless of race or gender
  • And to cost as little as possible

160 years later, I think our founders would be proud at what we’ve accomplished.

Our Mechanics’ Institute is one of the few surviving in the world that still operates on its original model of providing opportunities for educational advancement. It is one of the oldest libraries in the West and more importantly, one of the first truly “public” institutions of the San Francisco Bay Area. Today it is a thriving community enriched by its cultural events, amazing library, and vigorous chess program. It has our members who support it, to thank.

What will the Mechanics' Iinstitute be like in the coming decades? With vision, strong leadership, and your championship – only better! In honor of our 160th year, I challenge you to do three things:

  • Show the Institute to three of your friends – referrals is how we get most of our new members.
  • I ask that you give what you can to support our operations – your membership dues cover only 9% of our operating costs, meaning that it costs us $1000 per member per year to put on this show.
  • And above all, that you be just and fear not!

If you missed the lecture Passion, Pride, and Principle: The Birth of the Mechanics’ Institute 1851-1856, you can view the 4-part video below. More lectures on the Mechanics' Institute's early history are planned! Please keep your eye on our website and newsletter for further details.

Many thanks is due to the incredibly generous Mike Duckworth for the care and attention he paid to the production of this film.

Posted on Dec. 15, 2014 by Taryn Edwards

Welcome Our New Executive Director, Ralph Lewin

I am pleased to welcome Ralph Lewin as the Mechanics' Institute's new Executive Director. He replaces Executive Director Jim Flack, who retired after 15 years of service.

Mr. Lewin is eager to assume his new duties at the Mechanics' Institute. He comes to us after serving six years as President and CEO of Cal Humanities, where he was a fierce advocate for the support of the humanities in California and nationwide. His experiences at Cal Humanities range from supporting Academy Award nominated documentary films, to inspiring a reading of the Grapes of Wrath in libraries across California. Mr. Lewin serves on the boards of the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the University of California Humanities Research Institute and is on the editorial board of the magazine BOOM: A Journal of California. He was born in San Francisco, raised in San Diego, and now lives locally with his wife, Caitlin Mohan, and sons Sam and Leo.

"I am honored and thrilled to be entrusted with the leadership of the Mechanics’ Institute," Mr. Lewin said. "I look forward to working with the board, staff, members and supporters to create an exciting new chapter in the Mechanics' Institute's development. I firmly believe that the work of the Mechanics' Institute always has been and will be essential to the DNA of the Bay Area. The excellent library, vibrant lectures and conversations, and the world renowned chess club are something that each person in the Bay Area should know about and support."

Ralph has spent his first few weeks familiarizing himself with the building and the staff. He has a warm personality and a ready smile, if you see him feel free to introduce yourself!

-- Taryn Edwards, Member Relations and Marketing Specialist

Posted on Sep. 11, 2014 by Taryn Edwards

Invitation to Exhibit @ Book’toberfest

Have you written a book lately? Are you a graphic designer, book designer, editor, agent, web designer, illustrator, photographer, or freelance researcher? Do you offer a service that would benefit the reading and writing public?

The Mechanics’ Institute is seeking member authors, professionals involved in the book arts, or folks who offer writer support services to populate our annual tradeshow at Book’toberfest (Friday, September 26, 2014, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.). Book’toberfest is a fantastic opportunity to alert the Mechanics’ Institute community to you, your company, and your contribution to literary culture while enjoying local beer and delicious food!

Space is limited so if you would like to be involved contact Taryn Edwards by Friday, August 8, 2014 at (415) 393-0103 or [email protected].

This offer is extended to MI members only.

Posted on Jun. 11, 2014 by Taryn Edwards

May 2014: Books on Writing









One of my New Year's resolutions was to start keeping track of the books I've read. As a lifelong heavy reader I've started and stopped this sort of record keeping a couple of times but now that I’m working on a biography project (ask me about it sometime) I’m inspired to be more organized. In the same place (a Black n' Red hardbound notebook), I record both the fiction and non-fiction titles I read, along with a few notes on their content and my thoughts. The only rule is that I must read the book in its entirety (no skimming - I'm a champion skimmer). Here's what I've been reading that relates to writing.

Developmental Editing: a handbook for freelancers, authors, and publishers by Scott Norton (808.02 N888 – 2nd floor). Masochistic writers should read this book as it illustrates how editors approach a manuscript that needs work or "development." I learned a few valuable lessons about writing succinctly and found it terribly interesting to see how editors examine and distill a bloated piece of work into something publishable.

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland (808.3 W422 – 2nd floor). This is the first Weiland book I encountered and I've read it twice. It contains excellent information about narrative organization so even if you're writing non-fiction, trust me, you'll get something out of this.  Outlining Your Novel, and the newer Structuring Your Novel, offer non-fiction writers perspective on universal story structure and concrete lessons about story arcs, scene design, and character development. Story structure is covered well in several books on writing but Weiland's book has the least amount of blah-blah filler. I skimmed Structuring Your Novel the first time, then sat down with a notebook and hashed out ideas and situations related to my writing project. Take your time with both of these books, I think they will aid you with your own work's structure or enable you to see it in a new light. The author has a great website and an excellent blog for writers. Subscribe without fear, Weiland doesn't post too often but when she does, it's worth it.

I encountered Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists (813 L141 – 2nd floor), edited by Michael Lackey, shortly after reading Jack London's Martin Eden, a semi-auto-biographical novel.  This compendium of interviews with sixteen contemporary, biographical novelists is a heavier investment than the other three books above but it provides insight into "life" interpretation and the parallels between history and fiction. I found the dialogue about the authors' writing process to be constructive and the editor's introductory notes about the rise of biographical novels illuminating. What makes Truthful Fictions valuable to the potential biographer is the exploration of the notion of "truth," and the innumerable references to excellent or ground-breaking examples of the genre. I was so moved by author Joanna Scott's interview that I positively inhaled her novel Arrogance (on order – check the catalog), a lyrical rendering of the life of artist Egon Schiele. This book proves the saying correct that a writer must read and read and read. Truthful Fictions will lead you to a few good books.

For more books on story structure check out Story Engineering and Story Physics – both by Larry Brooks who also has a mind-blowing blog called Story Fix – and that’s exactly what it and these two books do, fix the problems with your story. I’m not quite finished with them but, so far, I’m completely devastated (in a good way) by Brooks’ analytical perspective on structure and the “necessaries” of scene. Whatever you are writing – be it fiction or non – you need to read these books.


Posted on May. 7, 2014 by Taryn Edwards

February 2014: Twelve Years a Slave








I’m reading a lot of Civil War era histories and novels these days, trying to immerse myself in the time period for a project I’m working on. When my mother said she was going to see the new film Twelve Years a Slave, I immediately ordered myself the e-book to read on my Kindle. The narrative was mesmerizing. While I was forced to put my Kindle down to work and sleep I found it hard to focus on my daily tasks – eager to know what happened to Solomon Northup. Two days later I read the final chapters sitting on my toilet whilst my three year old happily splashed in the bath with her toy fish. When I got to the scene where Solomon is found, working in the cotton fields, by a delegation of men who were there to liberate him, I cried out suddenly and my eyes welled with tears. My girl immediately asked what was wrong, and I reassured her but the scene was so powerful that I could barely speak. I highly recommend this book as a testament to the horrors of slavery and an example of a fine, exciting narrative. MI owns the eBook and print version of Twelve Years a Slave (92 N878).


Here is a selection of other, equally moving autobiographies from our collection, in honor of Black History Month:

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (92 W317up)

Born a slave, Booker T. Washington became a most influential African American activist. A true mechanic, he saw the importance of vocational education and worked hard to establish the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Slave Narratives (306.362 S631)

A collection of autobiographies by well known personages including Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.


Autobiographies by Frederick Douglass (92 D737a)

A collection of three autobiographical writings of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, advisor to Abraham Lincoln and powerful leader of the abolition movement.

And, here is a great collection of narratives available through the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress:  Born in Slavery

If you want to know more about California during the Civil War I recommend:

The Golden State in the Civil War : Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California by Glenna Matthews (979.404 M439)

This book excellently describes the political scene in California during the build-up to the Civil War. Thomas Starr King was the leader of the Unitarian Church in San Francisco and a powerful orator who was viscerally against slavery and pro-Union.

Reminiscences of California and the Civil War by Daniel Cooledge Fletcher (979.4 F61)

This is Daniel Fletcher's autobiography. Mr. Fletcher was a California immigrant from Massachusetts who, once the Civil War broke out, was so moved that he joined the U. S. army to preserve the Union. He fought in many of the early battles and has much to say about the war, the officers and his fellow soldiers, and California’s mining environment. A great first-hand account of the way it was.

Posted on Feb. 14, 2014 by Taryn Edwards

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic Murder and New Forensic Science, by Sandra Hempel

I’ve been burning to read this book since I first learned about James Marsh, a chemist employed by the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich (outside of London), and his discovery of a test for arsenic. The Inheritor’s Powder is a fascinating read!

The book traces the court case of John Bodle – the grandson of wealthy farmer George Bodle who suddenly fell desperately ill on the morning of November 2, 1833. Three days later he died in agony – presumably from arsenic. The resulting investigation riveted the nation and attracted world-wide notoriety for the characters involved.

Arsenic was used in practically everything in the 19th century – in wallpaper, clothing dyes, hat ornaments, candles, candy and even beer and wine as well as rat poison. Accidental and of course, purposeful arsenic poisonings were routine but difficult for authorities to prove. It wasn’t until James Marsh discovered a method for testing that provided a visual proof (versus an iffy “garlic smell”) that prosecution of arsenic crimes could proceed with any certainty.

The Inheritor’s Powder is a gripping read, particularly if you enjoy forensic science and historical whodunits.

Posted on Dec. 23, 2013 by Taryn Edwards

October 2013:Arts & Crafts Movement Books








Last August, we were treated to a visit from scholar Jennifer Cook. In her lecture, she explored the stories of three professional women enrolled at the Mechanics’ Institute of Rochester, New York, and explained how their experience was typical of the growing influence of women in the budding Arts and Crafts Movement. Women artists during this time (1890’s - 1920’s) enjoyed unique opportunities for growth and creative expression. The Mechanics’ Institute of Rochester (now known as the Rochester Institute of Technology) was one of the pioneer organizations for training in the Arts and Crafts offering co-educational opportunities and setting a national example for female leadership in the creative industries.  Below are some of the “recommended reading” from that event.

The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest by Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason (709.795 K92)

The ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement - a celebration of craftsmanship and the creative process -  was very similar to the Mechanics’ Movement of which the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute is a product. This magnificent compendium is the first comprehensive exploration of the Arts and Crafts legacy in the Pacific Northwest tracing the movement from its nineteenth-century English beginnings to its flowering in Washington and Oregon through the 1920s and beyond.

The Arts and Crafts Movement in California: Living the Good Life  edited by Kenneth R. Trapp (745 A79)       

Explore the artistic and social history of the Arts and Crafts movement in California, as well as the highly collectible objects it produced. In a brief but intensely prolific period between about 1895 and 1930, California contributed significantly to the Arts and Crafts movement in America. See examples of the architecture of Bernard Maybeck (a one-time instructor at the Mechanics’ Institute) and Arthur and Lucia Mathews (both active Mechanics' Institute members).

William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Home by Pamela Todd (709.2 M87t)

Airy rooms, gleaming wood furniture, richly patterned fabrics, colors inspired by nature…no it wasn’t invented by Sunset Magazine. William Morris was the first to champion the styles that remain quintessentially modern today. This book profiles his life and is a lavishly illustrated guide to decorating the Morris way.

Bernard Maybeck: Architect of Elegance by Mark Anthony Wilson (720.92 M46wi)

If you love the major architectural gems of the San Francisco Bay Area, chances are you love Bernard Maybeck. His landmark buildings include the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley. His emphasis on an open use of natural materials marks him as a pioneer in sustainable architecture, or "green design." Maybeck's work achieves that delicate balance between historicism and modernism, and his buildings are still in use throughout several states on the West Coast and the Midwest. This book includes more than two dozen Maybeck buildings that have never been photographed in color in any other book, as well as several of his buildings that were never documented in prior texts.

The Art of Arthur & Lucia Mathews by Harvey L. Jones (750.92 M42jo)

Arthur and Lucia Mathews were enthusiastic supporters of the Mechanics’ Institute. Please admire their work in our lobby, designed to commemorate our merger with the Mercantile Association Library in 1906.

The Art of Arthur and Lucia Mathews was published in connection with the exhibition of the same name held at the Oakland Museum of California, Oct. 28, 2006-Feb. 25, 2007. It is the most comprehensive Mathews retrospective ever published. A thorough overview of the decorative arts as they evolved in California, it also surveys the Mathewses' predecessors, their contemporaries, and the artists whose work they influenced.

Posted on Oct. 15, 2013 by Taryn Edwards

August 2013: Wilde in the City







On August 22, Deaglan O’Donghaile, an expert on nineteenth century literature and culture, will be visiting the Mechanics' Institute to lecture about Oscar Wilde’s famous visit to the West and the San Francisco area. Oscar Wilde was an amazing personality and extraordinary writer. If you’d like to further your familiarity with Wilde’s life before the event, Wilde in the City, check out these fine books.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde : The Devoted Friend : The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde (2nd floor Graphic Novels, 741.5 R96f  v.4)

Prize-winning adaptations of Wilde’s tales including The Devoted Friend and The Nightingale and the Rose. "Wilde isn`t blatantly jeering at hypocrites or credulous fools in these stories. He is, however, suggesting that even the most genuinely beautiful surfaces shouldn`t be trusted. Russell catches this mood perfectly, not trying to overshadow Wilde but merely helping him do his disturbing work. Russell`s exquisite art has a supple ink line that`s never fussy."-Publishers Weekly

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (Balcony 2A, 92 W671hh)

Oscar Wilde in his own words—this volume includes more than 200 previously unpublished letters and shows the playwright, poet, and professional aesthete at his most brilliant. The letters, written between 1875 and 1900 are to publishers and fans, friends and lovers, enemies and adversaries revealing Wilde’s remarkable personality.

Constance : the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle (Balcony 2A, 92 W669)

Constance Wilde held a privileged position in London society until her husband Oscar was convicted of homosexual crimes in the spring of 1895. Suddenly her life changed irrevocably. Forced to flee to the Continent with her two sons, her glittering literary and political career ended abruptly. Drawing upon numerous unpublished letters, the author brings to life the story of a woman at the heart of fin-de-siècle London and the Aesthetic movement.

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna (Balcony 2A, 92 W671mc)

The author provides stunning new insight into the tumultuous sexual and psychological worlds of Oscar Wilde, charting his astonishing odyssey through London’s sexual underworld, and providing explosive new evidence of the political machinations behind Wilde’s trials for sodomy.

Posted on Aug. 1, 2013 by Taryn Edwards

February 2013: Celebrate Black History Month!








Last February I wrote a brief essay on the San Francisco Athenaeum and Literary Association, one of the first black circulating libraries in the west.

This month I have new information about one of the Athenaeum’s founders, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Gibbs was born in Philadelphia in 1823, the child of free parents and trained as a carpenter. He kept his finger on the pulse of the abolition movement and kept company with the literary and political movers and shakers of the day including Frederick Douglass. In 1850 he traveled to San Francisco where, with money earned shining shoes, Gibbs along with his business partner Peter Lester, opened a successful shoe store, the Pioneer Boot and Shoe Company.

This company would exhibit at the Mechanics’ Institute’s first and second Industrial Expositions – winning a bronze medal for gentlemen’s shoes (1857) and a certificate of merit for a case of gentlemen’s and ladies boots and gaiters of fine quality (1858). Both of these expositions took place on the plot of land between Montgomery, Post, and Sutter – right where the Crocker Galleria now stands.

Along with starting up the San Francisco Athenaeum and Literary Association in 1853, Gibbs was also involved with two newspapers that catered to the African American community of San Francisco: the Mirror of the Times (1857) and the Alto California (1851) and served as a delegate to California’s Negro Conventions of 1854, 1855, and 1857.

He later moved to British Columbia in 1858 when gold was discovered on the Fraser River. Over the course of his life Gibbs was involved with the national Negro convention movement, the state of Arkansas’ Republican Party, and he later became the nation’s first black jurist and the U.S. Consul to Madagascar. For more information on the amazing life of Mifflin Gibbs, read his autobiography on Google Books.

While the Mechanics' Institute does not have a special "African American" collection, it does collect books on topics specifically of interest to African Americans and has recently added several new titles of merit.  To find more books, just ask a librarian on the 3rd floor of the library or send an email to [email protected].

In the Words of Frederick Douglass : Quotations from Liberty's Champion - edited by John R. McKivigan and Heather L. Kaufman ; foreword by John Stauffer (92 D737i)

"There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution." Douglass’ words still ring true. Culled from The Frederick Douglass Papers (speeches, correspondence, editorials/essays, autobiographies), the quotations in this single volume are on topics ranging from politics to vice.

The Silence of our Friends - written by Mark Long & Jim Demonakos; art by Nate Powell (741.5 L848)

A semi-autobiographical account of two families living in Houston, Texas in 1967 - one white and one black. As the civil rights struggle heats up they find common ground while trying to win the freedom of five black college students unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.

How to be Black - by Baratunde Thurston (305.896 T544)

Have you ever been called "too black" or "not black enough"?

Have you ever befriended or worked with a black person?

Have you ever heard of black people?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this book is for you. Raised by a pro-black, Pan-Afrikan single mother during the crack years of 1980s Washington, DC, and educated at Sidwell Friends School and Harvard University, Baratunde Thurston has more than over thirty years' experience being black. He also is director of digital at The Onion, the cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics, a stand-up comedian, and a globe-trotting speaker so that should give you an idea of how entertaining this book is!

Redefining Black Power : Reflections on the State of Black America - edited by Joanne Griffith (305.896 R314)

A very local production, this book was published by City Lights and was written by a noted broadcast journalist from the BBS and the Pacifica Radio Network. Exploring the phenomenon and aftermath of the first Obama presidency, this book attempts to determine if it has helped the struggle for political, economic and cultural equality in the United States.

Black California : a Literary Anthology - edited by Aparajita Nanda ; foreword by Ula Y. Taylor (810.9 B623)

If you love California literature, you’ll love this addition to our collection! Published by local Heydey Books, Black California is the first comprehensive anthology celebrating black writing through almost two centuries of Californian history.

Posted on Feb. 15, 2013 by Taryn Edwards

January 2013: Scary Science










Are you losing sleep over worries about the fiscal cliff, the world ending, or just the prospect of a new year?  Turn your attention instead to more immediate concerns like over exposure to radiation, electromagnetic fields or a world without apes.

Books that bring science - the good, the bad, and the bogus - into the mainstream seem to be hot this winter.  Warm up with a few of National Geographic's short and amazing Tales of the Weird and then move onto the stronger stuff.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic - David Quammen (614.43 Q16)

The emergence of strange new diseases such as Ebola, SARS, AIDS, and the horse-killing Hendra is a frightening problem that seems to be getting worse.  In this era of frequent and speedy travel, the pathogens that cause these diseases can quickly spread worldwide and they share one terrifying characteristic: they originate in wild animals and pass to humans by a process called spillover

In Spillover, the author takes the reader along on an astonishing quest to learn how, where from, and why these diseases emerge, and he asks the terrifying question: What might the next one be?  Don't read this book before bed or while taking an exotic trip!

A Field Guide to Radiation - Wayne Biddle (539.2 B58)

Nuclear energy, X-rays, radon, cell phones - radiation is part of modern life yet the sources, and the ramifications of our exposure to it, remain mysterious. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wayne Biddle explores the history, meaning and health implications of radiation in short essays that may have you crying, moving to the wilderness, or calling your Congress person!

This is a simple guide to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and how to reduce their harmful effects.  While this handbook might not be something you'd put in a Christmas stocking, it presents information that may help you make choices about limiting your exposure to EMFs.

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks - Ben Goldacre (500 G618)

This expose of "bad science" will have you reeling! Author Ben Goldacre exposes quack doctors, biased and bogus scientific studies, and flat out "scientific" lies fed to us by the media or whatever industry is fronting the money; teaching the reader how to recognize "bad science" when exposed to it.

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics : a Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World - James Kakalios (530.12 K13)

In the imagination of the 1950s, it was predicted that the future would be like an episode of The Jetsons - flying cars, jetpacks, and robotic personal assistants.  Obviously, things didn't turn out that way! 

However, today's world is actually more fantastic than the most outlandish predictions of science fiction.  The World Wide Web, pocket-sized computers, mobile phones and MRI machines have changed the world in unimagined ways.  In The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, James Kakalios uses examples from comics and magazines to explain how breakthroughs in quantum mechanics led to such technologies.

Posted on Jan. 1, 2013 by Taryn Edwards