Dunedin Athenaeum & Mechanics Institute

For people passionate about words

03 477 6274


The library hosts a radio show on Otago Access Radio 105.4FM called Wireless Books.  In the last few shows we have been reading aloud amusing newspaper items about the Athenaeum. On the June 27 Show we read:

Letters from May 1887 Otago Daily Times

Sir, In our Athenaeum reading room there are three fireplaces; what they are for no one knows, as they have never seen coal.  There is also some heating apparatus underneath the floor, but it is a delusion to imagine that any warmth is derived therefrom.

I venture to assert that it is the only institution in New Zealand in which the comfort of the subscribers is so disgracefully neglected.

I trust that the committee will at once see to the proper heating of the place, and I think that we are entitled to have cheery fires during the coming cold dreary winter months instead of the blue noses and cold feet which now prevail.

I am etc. A Subscriber

In the next few days two other subscribers wrote in to agree that the Reading Rooms needed better heating.

What followed

Athenaeum Reading Rooms to the Editor

Sir, I regret to see that some misinformed persons have been making unfounded attacks on the heating of these rooms.

'Subscriber', who began the correspondence, entirely mistakes the purpose for which the 'apparatus' underneath the floor is intended.  It is emphatically not to heat the rooms but to pump nice cold, damp air in to keep down the temperature, and to prevent the readers from enduring that feeling of bodily comfort which we all know militates against the sharpest exercise of the intellect.

The Committee of the Athenaeum have determined that the minds of the readers shall not be dulled by capuan luxury, and so they not only provide no fires, but at some expense they have pierced the floors with holes through which well chilled air is driven into the rooms, thus ensuring that the readers shall have cool heads (and feet) and enjoy their magazines or newspapers and nothing else.

Sir, if subscriber and another subscriber object to sit over frozen air pumps let them keep away from the Athenaeum.  Such Sybarites as they, are entirely out of place in the cold bracing breezes that blow through its reading rooms.

I am etc. Rigor Mortis

If you want to hear more all our radio shows are available to be listened to on podcast on the Otago Access Radio website.

 The Dunedin Athenaeum & Mechanics' Institute moved to its present site in the Octagon, Dunedin, in 1870. It is the oldest surviving main centre Athenaeum in New Zealand still used for its original purpose.

Last year the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute was privileged to have respected broadcaster, historian and writer Jim Sullivan write a history of the library's sometimes turbulent past.  Jim has been successful in teasing out the human side of the story as strong personalities throughout the years have shaped the development of the library.
The book Reading Matters is available for $50 at the Athenaeum Library 23 The Octagon; Paper Plus in the Golden Centre, George Street, Dunedin and The University Book Shop, 378 Great King Street, Dunedin.
Here are some extracts from Reading Matters by Jim Sullivan.

The Athenaeum (from the Athenaion in Athens where poets read their works) was the name given to a school in ancient Rome where the arts were studied.  In modern times Athenaeum has been used as the name for an institution which promotes literary or scientific learning or for a reading room. page 8

While a lending library was often part of the mechanics' institute in the early years lectures and reading rooms, rather than a lending library were the focus of the instigators of the Dunedin Mechanics' Institute.  The Dunedin Athenaeum can trace its beginnings to 1851, the year in which the Mechanics' Institute was founded (the Athenaeum founding year is often given as 1859, the year the ailing Mechanics' Institute was 'absorbed' into the newly founded Athenaeum).
page 10

As with almost all matters in the new colony factional interests intervened.  Surveyor Charles Kettle and magistrate A Chetham Strode were annoyed about being omitted from a list of patrons, some harsh words were exchanged and a substantial number of donations withdrawn.  page 16

Land was found at the junction of High and Rattray Streets (the present site of the Cargill Monument) ...The building was to be "in the Grecian-Doric style of architecture" and would have two rooms able to accommodate up to a hundred people and two reading or class rooms which could be made into one room by removing a partition.  It would have a shingle roof and the chimney in the centre was to become something of a landmark....The finished building was regarded as an odd one, a square with a peaked roof and an array of windows separated by pilasters on each side.  The interior had no ornamentation or decoration and the floor space, with the exception of the room taken up by the plain deal table with a baize cloth and its surrounding of hard forms, was left clear to accommodate as many people as possible....The opening of the Mechanics' Institute was one of the highlights of the short history of the small town. page 17

In its early days, the Mechanics' Institute building was in demand because it was one of the few public buildings in the town....The Otago Provincial Council first met in the Mechanics' Institute on 30 December 1853...The Dunedin Town Board met there for the first time on 27 August 1855...The building was never ideal for all this activity and by 1857 the Colonist regarded it as too small and as a "place not much larger than the Black Hole of Calcutta."...One widely-recognised contribution made by the Mechanics' Institute was providing a venue for the first amateur choral group, the Dunedin Harmonic Society....Probably because it was a convenient meeting place rather than because of any perceived association with religious dissent the Mechanics' Institute (and later the Athenaeum) was the setting for early rebellious gatherings.  pages 18-27

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