Oakland’s Montclair Library branch manager keen to ramp up operations
By Lou Fancher
If Lake Merritt is Oakland’s “crown jewel,” the city’s public library branches are among the gemstones adding luster to the civic tiara. One gemstone positioning itself to become more vibrant, accessible, relevant and interactive than ever, the Montclair Library has been invigorated and promises to continue being so by the recent arrival of its new branch manager, Mahate Osborn.
Raised in Colorado’s mountains in a home far from neighboring houses, the Oakland resident said books and nature formed the earliest foundation for connections and “allowed access to a world of possibilities.” Osborn said she came to believe that libraries invite intellectual freedom and infinite exploration of the self and other; world history, current culture and events; and future worlds real and others imagined — all delivered in voices heard often and marginalized other voices not heard enough.
A magnificent, colorful array of people and environments exploded into view as her curiosity and voracious intellect, along with a self-admittedly rebellious spirit, led Osborn to books such as science fiction by Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus’ existential writing, Eastern philosophy from Vietnamese activist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh and feminist books by writers of color, including bell hooks [sic] and Toni Morrison.
“I connect with anything that speaks to the liminal nature of things,” Osborn said. “It’s in those spaces that true inquiry and presence comes to life. It allows flexibility of thought and courage to enter. Reading broadly, we explore other possibilities and lives, which is incredibly important today when we have so much increased, politicized polarity.”
Osborn is often drawn to poetry that she said allows for “holes” that aren’t either/or and permit the mind and imagination to roam the spaces within. She mentions Nikki Giovanni and Mary Oliver, then jumps to nonfiction and Rachel Aviv’s “Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us.” The book examines how different cultures perceive psychiatric illness and the rippling impact those narratives have on individuals and communities.
Osborn’s far-reaching interests come without surprise, based on her background. Her library career began in college, while serving as a library aide at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
“I felt in the library a sense of being at home in a way I hadn’t felt, other than when I was literally at home or in nature. There was emphasis on East-West approaches, and that offered a universe of ways I could expand my mind. It framed more questions than answers for me.”
From that experience, Osborn went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in multicultural counseling from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington; a master’s in library and information science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu; and a master’s in clinical psychology from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill.
Her eclectic work experience includes interning at an addiction and mental health clinic and a Native American health center. Since 2003, she has held various library positions throughout the Bay Area. During the height of the pandemic, when libraries were closed, Osborn moved between temporary posts: packing bags of books for home deliveries with other library employees, answering phones at a call-in center and more.
“Everybody’s lives were significantly, deeply impacted,” she said. “As public servants, we could practice the services we’ve been building over time. I could put my hands, mind and body into being on that line, packing those bags.
“At the call center, I received calls from people all around Oakland. The library had been a place they had gone for basic needs: talking to other people, getting help with job applications, learning how to use a mouse, so many fundamental things. People who were housebound expressed gratitude that we were even available on the phone.”
Filling at first a temporary position before becoming the library’s permanent manager last December, Osborn is keen to ramp up operations at the Montclair branch. Top priorities on a practical level include making the outdoor hillside space behind the building compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act; developing multifunctional, flexible areas indoors and outdoors that allow for mobile craft or other maker spaces and community gatherings in a variety of configurations; continuously surveying community interests to discover new interests; and centering outreach and programming on the diverse needs and desires of the library’s users, not just those who run it.
“People who walk in are the creators of this branch. We have active, engaged, curious people who come in every day. I especially want to include the voices from the people this land belonged to before it was colonized. I want to find out if anyone from those indigenous communities would want to have input into how this land can be developed and how the library can honor their history.”
Specific examples and a flurry of ideas that sail on the wind of Osborn’s considerable energy form a list of dreams. Among them are an indigenous garden with cooking classes steeped in local history; beekeeping and cooking courses, free bus transportation to connect library branches and facilitate collaborative programs to serve youths or people across multiple generations; music literacy in the form of singing groups, introductions to instruments and digital music production; and cross-cultural events and discussions with music as a centerpiece. Osborn said grounding the practices and programming in deep listening provides an opportunity to discover the reason each person comes to the library.
“What is the unique thing we can do to support them in their journey?” she asked. “It’s up to us to listen carefully, understand and respect what they are saying. This, then, informs all areas of service. Does the collection speak to a wide diversity of people and backgrounds?
“Will they walk into an environment where what they see reflects elements of what they need? At the reference desk, do we step back from our assumptions? Do we have awareness, cultural competence, sensitivity? Sometimes people have clear questions about a particular title, and that’s easy. But other times they come in and simply say, ‘What should I read?’ ”
To serve the diverse, complex needs of any community might seem a formidable task, but Osborn said she is emboldened by the staff, volunteers, Friends of Montclair Library group and others whose skills she praises. Eager to meet new challenges while making it more than “a place to pull books off the shelves,” the Montclair Library’s destiny seems to be forever among the tiny gems glowing in the crown of Oakland.