Mills College Library Special Collections Hold Unique Treasures

By Janice Braun

The F. W. Olin Library serves the Oakland campus and the global network of Northeastern University. With its creekside location and two-story windows, the library is a much-used and appreciated study space. Strengths of the circulating collection include performing and fine arts, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and California history.

The Oakland library is also home to Special Collections and the Elinor Raas Heller Rare Book Room. The Heller Room, which serves as the reading room for Special Collections, welcomes individuals and classes who consult rare books, archives, and manuscripts for assignments, research, and other projects. Events are also held in this spacious and inviting room, such as the annual faculty author program, which takes place during National Library Week.

Janice Braun stands in the Heller Rare Book Room at F. W. Olin Library

F. W. Olin Library Director and Special Collections Librarian Janice Braun looks through the Special Collections within the Heller Rare Book Room. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University.

The rare book collection was started in 1920 by Mills College benefactor Albert M. Bender with an initial donation of six volumes. Bender ultimately made many donations and was in frequent communication with then-President Aurelia Henry Reinhardt. In one letter, he writes, “I have been figuring on a visit to the College for the last few weeks. My desk is loaded with gifts for the little collection, and I am anxious to put them in their permanent home.” Bender supported many bibliophilic and other endeavors as well as individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. The F. W. Olin Library houses Bender’s papers, which are a fascinating record of his philanthropic and social activities, with correspondence from artists, writers, fine press printers, and others. The papers include letters, cards, and photographs from Ansel Adams, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Robinson and Una Jeffers, Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Steinbeck.

A page of the Gutenberg Bible

A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible in the Heller Rare Book Room. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

In addition to the Bender Papers, Oakland’s Special Collections has a number of other archives. One in frequent use is the Pauline Oliveros Papers. Pauline Oliveros was a pioneer in the field of electronic music, co-founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center (later the Center for Contemporary Music) in 1961. Her papers include manuscript scores, photographs, programs, and ephemera. Another notable archive is the Beate Sirota Gordon Papers. After graduating from Mills College in 1943, she worked extensively on the post-World War II research for the Japanese Constitution, was a translator for part of the negotiations, and authored Article 24 on women’s rights. She later worked with the Japan Society and Asia Society in bringing performers from all over Asia to the United States.

There are more than a dozen discrete rare book collections. The Early Printed Books collection has several volumes from the 15th century including a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible (circa 1455). There are also a dozen early printed books by women printers and publishers. Other rare books are on the subjects of dance, women’s history, bookbinding and papermaking, and the artist and musician, Patti Smith.

"Octopus" by Julie Chen resting on a table in the Heller Rare Book Room

“Octopus” by Julie Chen in the Heller Rare Book Room. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

The Fine Press and Artists’ Books collection, with over 5,000 volumes and a considerable array of fine press ephemera, is a strength of Special Collections. Books date from the late 19th century to the present, with a wide variety of examples both domestic and international presses and artists. While some presses are represented by one or two books, many are more comprehensive, such as Claire Van Vliet’s Janus Press, with work across several decades. Similarly, Julie Chen’s Flying Fish Press has books spanning the 20th and 21st centuries. Chen received her master’s degree from Mills College and was on the faculty for many years. Her work exemplifies the idea of an artist’s book: merging innovative structure and content into the handmade book that draws the individual into the reading experience. Her book Panorama, stretching out to five feet in length with two large-format pop-ups, addresses the subject of climate change.

A page from "The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer".

“The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer” in the Heller Rare Book Room. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

William Morris’ late-19th century Kelmscott press is well-represented with about half of the press’ output. The stunning masterpiece, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, commonly known as the Kelmscott Chaucer (published in 1896 in a limited edition of 425 copies) is one such book. This book contains 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones and multiple borders and other decorative elements by Morris. A current exhibition in the library on artists’ books draws from this and other presses presenting them within a historical context.

The above description is just a sampling of the offerings in Oakland. Students, faculty, and staff from Northeastern’s global network are encouraged to make use of the Special Collections. Many opportunities abound for studying the continuity of history, artistic expression, and material culture.