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The Mechanics’ Institute, home to world explorers

I feel like a bad ass when I walk down the street. I haven’t yet gone to any other countries or written a single game, but I’m loving my new life pursuing my dream of traveling around the world, conducting archival research and writing historical video games. I feel like a modern day Phileas Fogg.

The thing is, every Phileas Fogg needs his Reform Club and every intrepid world explorer needs his home base. Last week, I found that new home base when I acquired a membership at the Mechanics’ Institute (MI).

Mechanics' Institute entrance

Mechanics’ Institute entrance on Post Street

The MI has been around since 1854 and started with four books and two rooms, one for reading and one for chess. It was established in the aftermath of the California gold rush when thousands of out-of-work miners descended upon San Francisco after all the gold dried up, providing the city’s working class with technical education for getting new jobs. The institute reached the apex of its influence in the 1860’s and 70’s when the University of California system was established and it was called upon to provide university classes while new campuses were under construction.

Library tours depart from the third floor every Wednesday at noon

Library tours depart from the third floor every Wednesday at noon

The MI doesn’t teach classes anymore, but it’s kept the library and has developed its chess program to be what I understand is the premier program in the US. Gold medals from international chess olympiads are on display inside of the library and even outside of the chess room, you can see future chess masters poring over opening books. I’ve never been able to get into chess, preferring computer games in my childhood instead, but maybe the game will rub off on me.

Mechanics' Institute stacks

Into the stacks

I really appreciate that the MI endeavors to remain a community resource by keeping its membership fees affordable at $95/year. (One reason they can keep the fees so low is because they own the building.) Compare that to my co-working space across the street, which charges me a grandfathered-in rate of $350/month! In addition to access to the stacks and borrowing privileges, for that money you get several panel discussions, movie screenings, reading groups and various other cultural events every week, most for free and a few for discounted rates.

Mechanics' Institute foyer

The foyer–really, the whole building–makes me feel nostalgic for my grad school days

Now, you might have thought to yourself while reading this, why on earth would anyone ever pay for a private library?

My response to you would be, why does anyone ever pay for anything? There are many public library resources available to me in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Public Library is a fine library as are the various ones on the UC Berkeley campus. Certainly the MI’s collection can’t compete with those resources. But I like the privacy of the MI. It’s quiet, clean and bright. The floors in its stacks are made from the same translucent glass tile as the Mathematics Library at UIUC, where I spent so many hours and good experiences.  It feels special. It feels like a new home.

Mechanics' Institute perch

Room with a view

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