Mechanics’ Institute


The Mechanics’ Institute is a cultural center that includes a vibrant library, a world-renowned chess program and a full calendar of engaging events. Founded in 1854 to serve the educational and social needs of mechanics — artisans, craftsmen, and inventors — the Institute today is a favorite of avid readers, writers, downtown employees, chess players, and the 21st-century nomadic worker.

Featured Fun

The Mechanics’ Institute is proud to share recorded lectures and panel discussions, partially in partnership with The Emperor Norton Trust.

Video 1. New Suite for an Old Phoenix? The San Francisco Flag Reconsidered–a conversation with historian John Lumea and designer Brian Stokle

View this discussion of the lost design history of San Francisco’s municipal flag followed by a look at a new design by Brian Stokle — a design that finds in the flag’s original, mostly forgotten depiction of the phoenix an opportunity to create a new civic symbol for San Francisco that can do what all great city flags do: foster solidarity and esprit de corps in times of crisis and calm alike.

Video 2. Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco: Notes on SF’s Monarch of the Marginalized with The Emperor Norton Trust

On September 17, 1859, Joshua Norton announced his public reign as Emperor of the United States with a proclamation that appeared in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin.

156 years later, in 2015, The Emperor Norton Trust— then known as The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign — inaugurated Empire Day as a new annual holiday to mark the anniversary of this momentous declaration.

With the United States in the throes of a national conversation about what it means to speak and act as though black lives truly matter, there now is an important opportunity to consider what that meant for Emperor Norton and how that might have shaped his idea of the empire he sought to bring forth.

Join Emperor Norton Trust founder John Lumea for a discussion of the Emperor’s relationships with leading black intellectuals and editors of his day — including Peter Anderson, whose abolitionist weekly The Pacific Appeal between 1870 and 1875 published the lion’s share of Emperor Norton’s proclamations — as well as the Emperor’s well-documented insistence on equality, civil rights and expanded legal protections for black people.

Video 3. Hidden San Francisco with historian Chris Carlsson

San Francisco is an iconic and symbolic city. But only when you look beyond the picture-postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge and the quaint cable cars do you realize that the city’s most interesting stories are not the Summer of Love, the Beats, or even the latest Gold Rush in Silicon Valley. Join us as writer, historian, “professor,” bicyclist, tour guide, blogger, photographer, book and magazine designer Chris Carlsson presents his new book, Hidden San Francisco.

Video 4. Gold Mountain, Big City: Ken Cathcart’s 1947 Illustrated Map of San Francisco’s Chinatown with Jim Schein

Join us for a virtual and vividly illustrated presentation of Jim Schein’s new book about Ken Cathcart’s 1947 illustrated map of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The map in book formprovides viewers with a unique opportunity to experience the history of Chinatown through a new, immersive lens. Each quadrant of Cathcart’s map – which doubles as a guide for explorers of the book – is supplemented by never-before-seen black-and-white photographs and meticulous research. Gold Mountain, Big Citydrops the reader into a world of curious characters, revealing a glimpse of the immigration story so universal to America in both its celebratory aspects and its darkness. Celebrated as a visually noteworthy new book for 2020 by the New York Times, Gold Mountain, Big Citycomes with an folding edition of the map in a rear pocket.

This free event was held during San Francisco History Days 2020 on Friday, September 25, 2020 at 2:00PM. 

Video 5. Making History: a panel discussion about writing and publishing history

A panel discussion about the ins and outs of historical publishing. Speakers include: Chris GruenerPublisher of Cameron Books, Laurie Krill Acquisitions Editor from History Press, Lee Bruno author and developmental editor from the Collective Book Studio, and Lana Costantinithe editor of the Argonaut, the journal of the SF Historical Society.  Moderated by Taryn Edwards, Librarian and Strategic Partnerships Manager for the Mechanics’ Institute.

This free event was held during San Francisco History Days on September 27, 2020 at 2:00PM. 

Tour of the Mechanics’ Institute

The Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco was founded at the end of 1854 with four books and a mission to start an organization to serve the vocational and social needs of the city’s mechanics, artisans, and industrialists. Within a few years the Institute was offering classes in mechanical drawing, industrial design, electrical science, and applied mathematics; had started a chess club and had acquired a magnificent library that slaked San Francisco’s voracious appetite for technical and pleasurable reading material.

Today the Mechanics’ Institute continues as a membership organization boasting a fantastic general-interest library, active cultural event calendar, and world-renowned chess club. It is a favorite of avid readers, writers, downtown employees, students, film lovers, chess players, and the 21st century nomadic worker in search of a place for literary pursuits, thinking, research and study.

If you are a new, long-time, or prospective member the Virtual Tour of the Institute will orient you to our building, include an overview of our history and mission, and outline our current services and the benefits of membership. Tours typically take 45 to 60 minutes. We hope this will whet your appetite to see the Institute in person once the shelter-in-place order lifts.

This free event was held during San Francisco History Days on September 25, 2020 at 12:00PM. See the Mechanics’ Institute Events Page for future programs.

Libraries of the Barbary Coast, 1848-1879

San Francisco since its birth has been a literary town. The thousands of people who came to California during the Gold Rush were voracious readers – eager to catch up on the news of the day and to while away the time between shifts in the gold fields with a good book. While many were as simple as a bookshelf of titles in a boarding house; there was a great need for true libraries (with their own building, an organized collection of books, and a staff) to serve the needs of the city’s growing population. In this illustrated lecture, librarian Taryn Edwards will describe the importance of these early libraries as centers for information (i.e. where the best gold diggin’s were), self-guided education, camaraderie, and social change.

This free event was held during San Francisco History Days 2020 on September 27, 2020 at 3:00PM. See the Mechanics’ Institute Events Page for future programs.