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Mills College Special Collections

A copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a Mozart manuscript and a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible. These are just some of the items in the Mills’ archive that have drawn researchers, academics and literary enthusiasts from far and wide.

The Elinor Raas Heller Rare Book Room, or more commonly, The Heller Book Room, was established in 1989 and is located in the F.W. Olin Library. It is the home of 12,000 volumes and 10,000 manuscripts which make up the college’s special collection. For a small private college, Mills has built quite a reputation for its rare books special collection, and Janice Braun, library director and Special Collections librarian and coordinator, is working closely with many different groups inside and outside the Mills community to bring more familiarity to the archive and reading space.

Besides the recent Faculty Reading Event, other events held in the reserve book room include chapter meetings for the Printing History Association, Hand Book Binders Guild, music performances and even the college’s Board of Trustees.

Besides the unique events held in the reading room, the real gem that has gained much attention to researchers — locally, nationally and internationally — is the access to the archives.

About 50 new researchers have registered into the Mills system the last three years, and Braun suspects that number will continue to rise. Unlike many rare book rooms, Mills takes a more relaxed approach to visitors — researchers are welcomed to bring paper, pencils and electronic devices in order to conduct research, a rarity in most other collegiate environments.

The special collection is also being utilized up to the larger Oakland community. For the last three years, Braun has worked with a local high school teacher and her Book Art program. The class takes a field trip to the Heller Room to see first hand the different types of artist books available. The collection provides students the opportunity to enrich the material they have been studying and to access the material in a way that was not previously available to them.

Local academic institutions aren’t the only ones benefiting from the special archives: Local companies and events have also been requesting access to the rare materials. The San Francisco Metropolitan Museum of Art has relied on the Mills collection of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera archives for many of their events.

The English, history and art departments at Mills also frequently utilize the rare book archive, and each have taken advantage of working with some items from the special collections in order to enrich their curriculum.

The Shakespeare class has been an opportunity for Braun to familiarize Mills students to the collection. She displays the Folio for students as a way to expose them to Shakespeare material in a more tactile way.

“Students are blown away and sometimes have an emotional response after seeing the Folio,” Braun said. “It gives them an opportunity to take something they’re familiar with and see it differently from its original state. This is just one of the ways why the reserve collection is so important.”

The Special Collection hours are Monday to Friday 10:00 a.m.–noon, Monday 1:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m. and Tuesday to Friday 1:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.