Research

A New Reading Public: The Mechanics’ Institute in the Colony of Victoria

Image: 'Gold diggings, Ararat' by Edward Roper, 1854. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Image: 'Gold diggings, Ararat' by Edward Roper, 1854. Oil on Canvas.  Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr Sarah Comyn (UCD)

This case study explores the role that Mechanics’ Institutes played in developing gold-rush communities in colonial Victoria, looking at the selection of texts that formed their collections and readership; what influenced their choices of texts; how the texts were transported to Australia; and what sort of judgments and critical practices the institutions initiated. The expanding economy and diverse communities developing around gold in this period of Victoria’s history naturally leads to questions and concerns about value, identity, and representation. Central to this case study is an expansive and inclusive understanding of literary value as an aesthetic and imaginative practice. Crucial questions to be answered are: what role does literature play in establishing a community, and what sort of ideological work, if any, did it perform in these emergent communities? In what ways did the wealth of the gold rush contribute to a growth in cultural production and cultural literacy? The various library collections and literary institutions examined therefore provide sites for analysing the manner in which a developing ‘reading public’ staged and managed competing values, whether economic, cultural, political, or moral. Examining these various institutions within their transnational network with Britain and in the context of the Victorian gold rush, this case study will discuss issues surrounding the transportation of literary value to the colonies and identify the private and public reading practices of early Victorian townships, as well as the contribution these institutions made to a broader Australian colonial literary culture.

Publications and Presentations:

  • Comyn, S. ‘A New Reading Public: The Mechanics’ Institute in the Colony of Victoria.’ ‘Institutions as Networks Workshop’. Royal Society of Antiquaries, London. 13 July 2017.
  • Comyn, S. ‘The Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in the Colonies: Victorian Mechanics’ Institutes, 1854-1870’. BARS 2017 Romantic Improvement. University of York. 27 July 2017.
  • Comyn, S. ‘Literary Sociability on the Goldfields: The Mechanics’ Institute in the Colony of Victoria, 1854-1870’. Journal of Victorian Culture (forthcoming 2018).