A few weeks back, I spent a Friday night on the third floor of the Institute Library, Connecticut’s oldest private circulating library, drinking beers and listening to jazz LPs with a couple of friends and two older gentlemen, Frank and John. We likely would have blitzed past the plac—a shy four-story Romanesque Revival building far down Chapel, couched between a tattoo parlor and a vintage store—had it not been for a prim couple, sporting a tuxedo, black gown, flashes of jewelry, tumbling out the door onto the sidewalk looking somewhat dazed. “Here for the jazz?” our tuxedoed friend asked us. “They’re up there.”
We mounted the stairs, signed into the registry, and sat in chairs the color of Promethean fire. In front of us was a table spread with jazz records—Mal Waldron, Larry Vuckovich, Bobby Timmons, Jaki Byard, Dave McKenna, et al. Frank and John, facing one another across the table, leaning in their chairs in near perfect symmetry, were the only ones in the room. They seemed stunned to see the three of us. We got to talking—jazz, the library, the city.
I scanned one of the shelves along the walls for the next record to play and found a John Coltrane LP, featuring quartet arrangements of “Out of This World,” “Soul Eyes,” “The Inch Worm,” “Tunji (Toon-Gee),” and “Miles’ Mode.” Frank laid it on the turntable. The blow of the sax started to spin into the room.
Frank told us that the Coltrane record had personal significance. An organizer had given him a copy while he was canvassing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after college. It was the first time he’d listened to jazz. On occasion, when he found himself talking over the record, he would face the turntable and say, “Sorry, John.”
We could hear the stairs groaning and a woman came in the room with a glossy look—the same kind of daze our sharp-dressed friends from earlier in the night wore. “Is this the happy hour?” she said. Frank answered yes. She sat and listened for a while.
We asked about the building. The inside was striking with its 10-foot ceilings, pull-cords dangling from light fixtures on high, massive windows rounded at the top, a pyramidal skylight, an art gallery, the record room, several reading rooms, rows of bookcases, and an attic. Frank and John gave us a brief history of the library: it was a center of the abolition and suffrage campaigns; Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a series of lectures there.
Then Frank and John dipped into the obscure. The library claimed a spectacular distinction: it was the only library in the world organized according to the Borden System of classification.
They explained its methodology—something about 26 classes covering every category of material experience, each assigned a letter of the alphabet, each containing numbered subdivisions, each of those with possible subdivisions, and so on. William Alanson Borden designed the system in 1897 to contest the primacy of Dewey Decimal. In the library’s collection is kind of a memorial to the Dewey-Borden War—a Dewey Decimal Manual translated into Esperanto, the intended universal world language invented in the late 19th century. In 1910 Borden accepted a personal invitation from the Maharaja Savajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, now Vadodara, to found the first public library on the Indian Subcontinent, though that system converted to Dewey Decimal by mid-century.
It was late and we started to gather our things. Frank told us that the next Jazz Hour was on Valentine’s Day. They had a romance program planned with Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, and others. We told him we’d be there and went back down the stairs and out onto Chapel.
I walked over to the library yesterday to register a membership—it’s an annual $25 fee. Ann, a writer who’s volunteered at the library for over a decade, sat with me behind her desk and we went through the membership routine. Then, with a little help from Borden, I searched the shelves for Philip Roth, sat and read the first few chapters of Goodbye, Columbus, flipped through the folk records on the third floor, and headed back to campus.