Dorothy Lazard, librarian extraordinaire and author of the memoir What You Don't Know Will Make a Whole New World. Credit: Heyday Books

Every reader has a story about how a library changed their life. And often a librarian. One such librarian is Dorothy Lazard, who worked for decades at the Oakland Public Library and its Oakland History Center. She was called “an absolute legend” by a member of the #DorothyLazardFanClub. She’s been lauded for (among other things) her uncanny knowledge of local history, which she uses to inform current events via hundreds of illuminating talks and reading lists. 

Dorothy Lazard’s new memoir will be available at the Bay Area Book Festival. Courtesy: BABF

In her much anticipated forthcoming memoir, What You Don’t Know Will Make a Whole New World, Lazard has told the story of her own personal and professional evolution through the upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s, personal tragedies, encounters with literary titans, and the journey to becoming “queen of my own nerdy domain.” 

The memoir doesn’t publish until May 16, but attendees of the upcoming Bay Area Book Festival (May 6-7) will be among the first to get their hands on it, with copies for sale at the event.

In an edited interview, she shared some thoughts about her own publishing process, which she’ll discuss further at the festival.

Bay Area Book Festival: Can you tell us why you ventured into writing after a long career as a librarian?

Dorothy Lazard: My memoir is my first book, but certainly not my first time publishing. I have been publishing fiction and personal essays in anthologies for decades. I also write history articles fairly regularly for the Oakland Heritage Alliance News. After retiring from the public library, I finally had the time to focus on all the writing projects that I had been putting aside for years.

Bay Area Book Festival

Book lovers, rejoice! The festival returns May 6–7, 11 a.m.–5 p.m., all free. Nearly 250 speakers appear in 100 programs for adults and youth in indoor and outdoor venues in Downtown Berkeley. Live music and spoken word at BART Plaza. On Sunday, the Outdoor Fair fills Civic Center Park with a large stage, kids’ activities, literary vendors, and food trucks. Keynotes on Saturday and Sunday nights are $15.  

BABF: How did you draw on the local literary community for advice and resources in bringing your memoir to print? 

DL: I do rely on a core group for advice, editorial guidance, encouragement, and connections. And they have put me in touch with some wonderful writing opportunities. My memoir was about two-thirds complete when my friend Susan Anderson connected me with Steve Wasserman, publisher at Heyday Books, who wanted to discuss the possibility of my writing a book on the history of African Americans in Oakland. At the end of that meeting, I read them a couple of pages of my memoir so Steve could get a sense of how I write. He expressed interest in reading more pages, so I sent him 50 pages, then the whole piece, which at the time was about 130 or so pages.

BABF: What was the most unexpected part of the journey to publication?

DL: Certainly having my memoir accepted for publication so quickly was unexpected and amazing. A real bit of serendipity. I had no plan as to which publishing outfits I’d submit my memoir, but I was glad that a well-respected, local publisher like Heyday picked up my book.

BABF: What else have you been focusing on since retirement?

DL: Retirement is fabulous, sublime. I’ve been loving the time I now have to finally address all those postponed or half-completed home projects like getting the attic insulated and the bedroom painted. And despite the 13 atmospheric rivers we’ve experienced so far this year, nothing keeps me out of my garden, which is feeling the love and giving me such abundant beauty and peace in return. I’ve been studying French and playing around with the piano, too. In other words, as Congresswoman Maxine Waters would say, “I’m reclaiming my time!”

And, of course, I’m working on those unfinished manuscripts that I think every writer has tucked away somewhere. I have one on the front burner, and two in draft stage, including a long-neglected novel that refuses to die. 

BABF: It’s always fascinating to know what’s on a book lover’s nightstand.  What are you reading these days? 

Jane Smiley will appear at the Bay Area Book Festival. Credit: Jack Canning

DL: I tend to gravitate toward nonfiction. Right now, I’m enjoying Andrew Alden‘s fascinating new book Deep Oakland: How Geology Shaped a City. It’s making me look at all the streets and elevations of the city in a totally new way. I love how it merges history with geology, showing their interconnection. [Editor’s note: Alden will appear at the Bay Area Book Festival Sat., May 6, at 3:30 p.m. to discuss this book.]

As far as fiction is concerned, I am a very random selector. I haven’t followed any particular writer in years, but when I did I was heavily into Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie. I’m very catholic (intentional small “c”) in my taste.

The Festival’s star librarian, Dorothy Lazard, will appear Sat., May 6, at 11 a.m., as part of a session on literary autobiography called A Life in Books, with fellow authors Joan Frank and Jane Smiley. On Sun., May 7 at 2 p.m. she will interview historian Ilyon Woo about her New York Times bestseller in An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom: Master Slave Husband Wife.

Programs on the joy of writing

Other programs of special interest in the “story of books” track on Sat., May 6 are What Makes a Critic?; Dazzling Debuts; and Flash Fiction America. Sessions on literary craft encompass writing from a child’s point of view and MFA writing programs on the biggest challenges of writing a book (actually finishing!) from San Jose State University, as well as writing autobiography across genres from the University of San Francisco.

Also on Saturday, and at the Berkeley Public Library, teens can sharpen their writing chops with a flash fiction workshop with NaNoWriMo executive director Grant Faulkner, and at a workshop on Choose Your Own Adventure stories.

Sunday’s programs on literary craft include Writing Humor as well as a raucous, Festival-closing event with many authors on the outdoor Chronicle Stage: LitCamp Presents: Unreliable Narrator.

Find full details for all 100 programs at the Festival at