Dorothy Lazard has a long to-do list. An interview and photoshoot at 1:30 p.m., a meeting at 4:00 p.m., emails to reply to, and boxes outside her office with donated historical records that she has to look through. Her days have been busier than normal lately because Lazard, a 21-year employee of the Oakland Public Library who has led its renowned History Room for the past 12 years, is retiring on Dec. 23.

“What I am going to miss is helping people figure out what it is that they want to tell or show, or write about or create,” Lazard said. “And, offering them questions and ideas, having those kinds of dialogues. I think I’ll miss that the most.”

On the recent day that The Oaklandside tagged along with her, Lazard sorted through boxes gifted by the family of local historian Ray Raineri, who passed away in 2015. One of Lazard’s jobs is to review the troves of materials donated to the library and determine what documents and items the library is going to keep, and what will be returned to families like the Raineris. 

It wasn’t long before Lazard had to pause our interview to check in with a visitor in need of her Oakland history expertise. After hearing of her impending retirement, the man looks shocked.

“That’s pretty much the reaction I’m getting,” Lazard said. “‘Oh, yeah, you’re gonna retire.’ It’s like, no, next week is my last.” 

One of Dorothy Lazard’s duties is to review incoming materials to determine whether or not they are of historical value and worth preserving. Credit: Amir Aziz

Those who have relied on Lazard’s guidance while searching through the Oakland History Center (previously called the Oakland History Room) over the years know that it’s hard to heap enough praise on her.

“OPL celebrated a real one today. Dorothy’s Retirement Party. It’s not the end of Oakland History as told by her, but it’s the end of the public having regular access to this gem of a person in our History Room,” a fellow librarian tweeted the day of Lazard’s retirement party. 

“I knew I wanted to retire a few years ago. But it just didn’t feel right. Sometimes, it didn’t feel right because I was working on a project. Sometimes it didn’t feel right because of money,” Lazard said. “Last year it didn’t feel right because of what was going on.” 

Emily Foster, the librarian who will take over the Oakland History Room, joined the Oakland Public Library full-time in 2019. Lazard had very little time to officially hand off the center to Foster because of the pandemic. Foster had been volunteering and working part time with OPL since 2011, including working in the History Center, and she was a librarian for the Berkeley Public Library from 2015 to 2019.

“We had three months together and then everything closed,” Lazard said. Foster and Lazard were able to work together again when the library reopened in June.

Lazard said that she doesn’t plan to take it easy in retirement. She sees it as an opportunity to work on other projects that she had put on the back burner because of her devotion to her position as a head librarian. 

“I feel it’s really bittersweet because I still love my job. And I’m still good at my job, I believe,” she said. But with the passage of time, she wonders:  “Have I accomplished everything I want to do in my life?” 

She has three unpublished books, and more book pitches that she would like to see come to fruition. She’ll be focusing on these projects in the coming months and years and is also looking forward to spending more time at home tending to her garden. “I need to tend to my greens, to my kale which I’m supposed to be eating,” she said. 

In a way, Lazard has already helped create innumerable articles, books, podcast segments, and more. For local journalists, her knowledge has been an invaluable source for stories throughout the years. 

In February of 2020, Oakland journalist Pendarvis Hershaw playfully penned the hashtag #DorothyLazardFanClub after hosting Lazard on his KQED podcast Rightnowish. Since then, you can type the hashtag on pretty much any social media platform and find someone praising the librarian. 

“I’ve learned so much from this incredible woman over the years — and the next phase of her career promises to be just as enlightening,” shared Liam O’Donoghue, host and producer of the podcast East Bay Yesterday, on Instagram. 

Last June, The Oaklandside asked Lazard to share her own curated list of books related to the current protest movement.

Lazard studied at UC Berkeley’s School of Library and Information Studies in the early 1980s. (In 2006 it was renamed The UC Berkeley School of Information.) Prior to working at the Oakland Public Library, she worked in two small UC Berkeley libraries: the Counseling and Psychological Services Library during the 1980s, and the Women’s Resource Center Library from 1990-1999. She also had a job at Global English, a technology company that taught people around the world to learn English. “I wasn’t an ESL teacher. But these dot-comers thought they needed a librarian,” she said. After nine years at Oakland Public Library, she was put in charge of the Oakland History Room in 2009.

Lazard has lived all over Oakland. She’s familiar with every neighborhood, and through the years she has witnessed the dynamics that have drastically changed the city’s landscape. In her youth, she commuted from 13th Street and Market in West Oakland to attend Castlemont High School in deep East Oakland. She remembers the construction of City Center, which broke ground in 1972, and the loss of local shops along Washington Street. She fondly talks about how many theatres Oakland had back then, especially along Broadway. 

“I used to live in downtown movie theaters: the Roxie, T&D, and the Lux. The Broadway got torn down pretty early in City Center’s life. So I didn’t ever get to go,” she said. 

One of the changes to Oakland that worries her the most is the growing number of unhoused residents. “There is no measure that is even close. This is unprecedented,” she said. Before the 1980s, Lazard remembers there were far fewer people experiencing homelessness in Oakland, but today the crisis affects thousands of people. 

Lazard in front of one of her favorite aerial photos housed at the Oakland History Center. Credit: Amir Aziz

Asked about her favorite items in the History Room, she pointed to a large aerial photograph of Oakland in the 1950s. As she looks through it, she can pinpoint different locations and old buildings, some torn down long ago to give way to new construction. Another of her favorites in the collection is a 1942 central business district map that highlighted the wartime shelters where residents could go in case of an attack by Japanese or German forces.

“This is one of my favorites because it tells you the names of the buildings, all the parking lots that we had, and countless furniture stores. Washington Street was a block full of stores,” she said, carefully looking at the map draped over a table. 

“Holding history is a big responsibility—that’s what this job has taught me,” Lazard wrote in her last blog post for the Oakland Public Library’s website titled The Future of History. “Whether you’re responsible for an archive or simply preserving family stories for the next generation, history keepers hold the future in their hands.”

Although visitors to the Oakland History Room won’t be greeted by Lazard anymore after Dec. 23, librarian Emily Foster will be there to lead visitors through the leather-bound books, maps, and newspaper archives.

“It’s been a privilege to be responsible for all the collections that I’ve been responsible for, and I will be wondering how they will fare, how they will be maintained,” she said. “But at some point, you got to, like people say, ‘Let go, let God’, and hope that the services I provided in the example of collection development, my colleagues will pick up, and carry it into the future.”

Correction: the original version of this story stated that Emily Foster was hired by OPL in late 2019 and had limited experienced with the Oakland History Center. Foster actually started volunteering at OPL around 2011, including in the history center, and worked part time at the library for several years before becoming a librarian for the Berkeley Public Library.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.