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Bringing the spirit of Patti Smith to Mills

For the past 15 years, Robert Byler, the nighttime librarian’s assistant, has been collecting and creating a Patti Smith Special Collection at Mills College.

The collection contains multiple versions of Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” in several languages. (Emily Mibach)
The collection contains multiple versions of Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” in several languages. (Emily Mibach)

Byler has been working with Janice Braun, the Associate Library Director and Special Collections Librarian, to create this expansive collection, which contains Smith’s poetry, art, music, photographs and even a typed draft with Smith’s hand written notes of Smith’s 2010 bestseller, Just Kids, which Smith sent to Byler specifically for the collection.

Patti Smith, sometimes called the “Godmother of Punk,” has been performing, releasing music, writing and releasing poetry and art since 1971.

The collection is focused on Smith’s poetry and art, not necessarily her music, even though Byler does cite “Radio Ethiopia” as his favorite of Smith’s albums.

“Focusing on music in a rare book room is kind of odd,” said Byler, who discovered Smith’s poetry in a book store as a teenager.

“I had never read anything like it before – it intrigued me,” Byler said, referring to when he first read Witt, Smith’s book of poems.

Byler feels like Mills is the ideal place to have a Patti Smith collection.

“She’s like a feminist without explicitly saying she is a feminist,” Byler said. “She’s just herself and broke down so many boundaries, and there was no female at the time being that androgynous”

Tee shirts Smith’s sister, Kim, donated to the collection.
Tee shirts Smith’s sister, Kim, donated to the collection.

Byler has been working at Mills’ F.W. Olin library since 1995, which was an ideal time to start collecting Smith’s books.

“She was just coming back, some early stuff had been re-released, some of her early poetry, and she had just played in San Francisco,” Byler said. “I couldn’t do this collection now, I wouldn’t be able to find everything I have now.”

Byler began searching for Smith’s books locally, nationally and internationally. In addition to finding items on sites like eBay and various rare book stores, he got into contact with some of Smith’s publishers in hopes they would have copies for him. Not only publishers and photographers have sent Byler items for the collection, but so has Kim Smith, Smith’s younger sister, and Smith herself.

“I met her at a book signing and told her about the collection, and she wrote me about it later asking about it,” Byler said.

Throughout the years Byler has kept in contact with Smith, and is very respectful of Smith in regards to the collection. If Smith wants something removed or sent to her because she doesn’t have a copy, Byler will happily abide. He has also never asked Smith for anything for the collection. On the Just Kids manuscript that Smith sent, Byler said it was “out of the blue.”

“I mean, people are people, just because you’re in the public light doesn’t mean that you’re any different,” Byler said.

While Smith has never visited Mills, Byler does admit to hoping maybe one day Smith will come to see not only the collection, but also the school.

“Bryn Mawr (College) just gave her some type of award, I guess we just need throw one together to get her out here,” Byler said.

The collection includes all of Smith’s published works, including international versions and various types of releases. The collection  also includes various pictures and art work, along with some of Smith’s tee shirts, donated by her sister. To date the mater list of the collection is over 100 pages long.

And as for credit, Byler wants none.

“People should always give something back,” Byler said. “This is a gift to the future and a gift to now, and hopefully people can use it and be influenced by it.”