There's an exotic mix of memories locked away on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue, ranging from Bette Davis's high school report card to Dan Rather's fan mail and a doodled pen-and-ink self-portrait by H.G. Wells.

Then there's the magnificent letter from George Bernard Shaw to John Barrymore, telling him he really should play Hamlet, along with the original drawings of "Little Orphan Annie," "Dennis the Menace" and "Li'l Abner."And don't forget the pair of gloves Elizabeth Taylor pulled off when Mike Todd gave her that huge diamond. She forgot about the gloves and left them at the Treetops estate of Libby Holman.

"In a sense we have covered the 20th century," said Howard Gotlieb, curator of the Special Collections at Boston University, who oversees the school's mounds of letters and memorabilia of the century's celebrities.

"The real test of any collection is that there must be research interest, not just now, but 10 years later, 20 years later, whenever," said Gotlieb, 61, who came to BU in 1963 after nine years as Yale University's archivist.

"That's why we spread our wings beyond politics, to civil rights, poetry, journalism, theater - to cover all facets of what is going on in a generation."

The archive in the Mugar Memorial Library includes such names as playwright Eugene O'Neill, singer Ella Fitzgerald and dancer Fred Astaire, along with artists and writers not known outside certain Hollywood or New York circles.

Gotlieb relies on donations of the documents and often will move quickly to secure a budding talent before fame attracts competing research libraries.

He admits he has gambled over the past quarter-century on some lesser lights whose beam dimmed with passing decades, but says the duds have been few considering the size of the facility.

"It's billions of papers," said Gotlieb, whose office is packed with enough curios to stock a small gallery. "The (former U.S. House Speaker) John MacCormack collection is 4 million documents and Miss (Bette) Davis's papers number 119,000."

Perhaps the archive's most historically valuable item is a letter written to MacCormack by President Johnson on Dec. 23, 1963, a month after the assassination of President Kennedy.

The document spells out how the House speaker "would serve as acting president" if Johnson were unable to serve.

The agreement between MacCormack and LBJ ended when Hubert Humphrey became vice president after the 1964 election. The 25th amendment, ratified in 1967, addressed vacancy in the vice president's office.

CBS anchorman Dan Rather has been one of Gotlieb's prize subjects, sending in boxloads of new material on a regular basis.

"He's very methodical, very good," said Gotlieb. "Interesting enough, I find that film people, people in the theater and journalists are better savers than literary folk. Maybe novelists feel their books are complete in themselves."

The Rather collection includes annotated CBS scripts, tapes and a note from former presidential hopeful Gary Hart thanking Rather "for having Lee and I to breakfast at the (1984) Democratic convention in July."

Then there's a letter to Rather from NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, saying he was "surprised, disappointed and angered by the tone and language of your conversation" with another NBC newsman regarding a story. "Whatever your intent, it struck me as an unnecessary, unjustified and uncharacteristic personal attack."

The bitter pending court dispute between BU and Coretta Scott King over 83,000 documents of her late husband, Martin Luther King, has not kept the King papers from being the most requested by students and scholars alike.

Nearly 5,000 people a year use collections. Also popular are the papers of entertainers Bette Davis, Gene Kelly and Rex Harrison.

Gotlieb's fifth-floor office is located just outside the document reading room, and his desk is an archive in itself, including the Sylvania Billionth Tube Award, a radio tube given to Kate Smith for her broadcasting achievements, and the pen Eugene Burdick used to write "The Ugly American" (1958).

Around the office are MacCormack's cigar box, former Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler's memory stand ("It stood beside his bed to hold music so he could memorize scores") and the laurel wreath worn by Claude Rains as Julius Caesar in the 1944 film "Caesar and Cleopatra."

Gotlieb said he has met about 80 percent of the people in the collection, and some of them use him as a personal reference service.

"Somebody will call and ask me to check on something, like `What did Hemingway write to me at such and such a time,' " Gotlieb said.

Gotlieb said he feels a personal rapport with all his subjects, even those he has not met.

"It is said the three most important people in one's life are one's doctor, one's lawyer and one's curator," he said. "What's more personal than your papers? It is the corpus of your life.

"I remember back around 1965 when I picked up 44 years of Harold Gray's original drawings of `Little Orphan Annie.' Harold Gray was childless, and saw Annie as his own child. I packed up a VW bus at his home in Connecticut and tears were streaming down his face.

" `Don't you know,' he said. `You're driving off with my life.' "