Windfall for Athenaeum Library

By Brendan Rees

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library is celebrating after securing a $10,000 state government grant that will help buy new Victorian-made timber tables to complete its major refurbishment. 

The Athenaeum’s building manager Sue Westwood said it was exciting news as the funding would replace old, donated and mismatched furniture.  

“It’s fantastic for us because it means this is the finishing touch to a library refurbishment that started two years ago,” she said, which had included new carpet, new electrical wiring, and a repaint as part of a $150,000 upgrade.  

“The last thing we needed were new tables, so our members donated funds to enable us to buy new chairs. This funding will really complete the library transformation,” Ms Westwood said. 

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library was one of 10 Mechanics’ Institutes this month to share $100,000 from the state government’s public libraries funding program to create public internet access, buy audiobooks, replace furniture and undertake renovations.

Built in 1842 and originally known as the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute, the Melbourne Athenaeum continues to operate as a library, theatres, and shops in Collins St.   

Its first tenant was the Melbourne City Council, which held meetings while the Town Hall was being built. The world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was premiered there in 1906.

Today, the heritage-listed library holds a 30,000-strong book collection and hosts regular events, talks, book clubs, and a screen club. 

“Our focus has always been to provide a kind of a cultural and recreational service to the community,” Ms Westwood said, adding the library had around 700 members and attracted 2000 visitors a month.

She said the not-for-profit library was also proud to sponsor a short story prize with Sisters in Crime, an Australian women’s crime writing organisation. 

“They have the annual Scarlet Stiletto Awards which is announced in November each year, and we sponsor a category called ‘The Body in the Library’ short story competition,” she said, which had been running for 10 years. 

“Hopefully in July we’re having a reading of some of those stories as a social event.” 

When asked about the effects of the pandemic, Ms Westwood conceded it hadn’t “been easy” but they were doing everything to ensure their tenants including two theatres, a restaurant, and a jewellery store stayed open. 

“We’re really working as a whole building community to ensure we’re all here on the other side of this pandemic,” she said. 

It is the third time the building has endured a pandemic including the Russian Flu in 1891, and the Spanish Flu in 1918.  

Local Government Minister Shaun Leane said he hoped Mechanics’ Institutes would be around for many decades so they could continue their “amazing record of service” •

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