New Memoir from Beloved Oakland Librarian Engages Race and Resilience in Coming-of-Age Tale 

Public historian Dorothy Lazard shares her origin story and celebrates the catalyzing role of libraries in her upbringing in the Bay Area.

ON-SALE: MAY 16, 2023

BERKELEY, CALIF. — What You Don’t Know Will Make a Whole New World is Dorothy Lazard’s autobiographical coming-of-age story as a young Black girl navigating race and embracing the world-expanding power of the written word in the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1960s and 70s. Transplanted to the West Coast by way of segregated St. Louis, this engrossing memoir offers Lazard’s account, told through her adolescent and teenage eyes, of her dawning consciousness of the dynamics of racism in America and the worlds that opened to her through the sanctuary of public libraries. 

“The library was a great, seductive classroom,” writes Lazard of her first heady encounters with the stacks, where she, like Malcolm X, vowed to become an autodidact. “It was during this honeymoon with the public library that I began to see how my life could be radically different from my mother and grandmother’s lives,” writes Lazard, “I could be my own something if I only learned enough.”

Lazard’s journey to become her own something takes us through some of the most tumultuous chapters of the Black liberation struggle—from the assassinaton of Martin Luther King Jr. to the flowering of the Black Arts Movement. Against this backdrop, Lazard points to her intellectual guideposts—James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield—who guide her quest toward self-determination.

Today the deeply beloved and now retired doyenne of the Oakland Public Library system, Lazard has built a career carrying the torch for the potent role of libraries as a haven for the ever-curious, the underserved, and the often marginalized. This memoir is her origin story, charting her journey from a Missouri orphanage to her adopted hometown of Oakland, revealing along the way how her early love of learning opened her young eyes to herself, her society, and ultimately her future as a change-maker and memory-keeper.

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Dorothy Lazard was born in St. Louis and grew up in San Francisco and Oakland. A librarian for nearly forty years, she joined the staff of the Oakland Public Library (OPL)  in 2000. From 2009 until her retirement in 2021, she was the head librarian of OPL’s Oakland History Center, where she encouraged people of all ages and backgrounds to explore local history. Beloved by her Bay Area community, she has been an indispensable resource for journalists, library patrons, and all the ever-curious that have crossed the threshold of OPL, and has featured in conversations on the history of Oakland and her own work in Oaklandside, KQED, and NBC Bay Area among others. She lives in Oakland. Photo by Gene Dominique.

A Q&A with What You Don’t Know Will Make A Whole New World author Dorothy Lazard


Your book tells the story of your childhood and coming-of-age, in particular the formative intellectual experiences that led to your distinguished career as a librarian and historian. How would you like this book to inspire younger readers?

I wrote this memoir with young people in mind, especially those who may not find themselves in environments that foster learning. I hope the book will encourage them to find places and people who can cultivate their curiosities. I also hope the book conveys the joy I found in reading (and later writing) because it not only fed me creatively, but freed me in ways that nothing else had during my childhood. It empowered me with academic achievement, dreams, practical skills, connection, and empathy. I learned that I had a place in the world. Knowing that can sustain anyone.


You have a lot of admirers, especially in the Bay Area (#DorothyLazardFanClub). What do you hope Bay Area readers will find interesting about this book? And what resonance does your story have for readers nationwide?

I hope local readers see how much I came to love San Francisco and Oakland, by exploring both places. I’d like them to see how inspiring a place Oakland was. So much of the Oakland of my childhood is gone now. By writing this memoir I wanted to resurrect lost and unheralded parts of the city and to celebrate aspects of it that fostered my development.

I expect my coming-of-age story will resonate nationwide because it tells a migration story, a Black Power story, a multi-generational family story, and a story that celebrates the enduring quest for education and freedom.


Is there any one principle that especially guides your own writing? And what books do you look to first as models when you write?

Honesty is a driving principle when I’m writing a story, giving it factual details and emotional truths. I ask myself: Have I described this event or explained this process as clearly as I can? What is my intention? Does this sentence need to be here, or am I just in love with how it sounds? Keeping these considerations in mind has not only made me a more skilled writer, but editor too. I’m a dedicated nonfiction reader, particularly of biographies, histories, and stories about cities. I admire writers like Isabel Wilkerson who take deep dives into their subjects.