As a child growing up in Boston, “I used to live in the library,” Barbara Elam once said. “It was the only place I could go without having to explain myself.”
Once she was an adult, she passed along that gift she had treasured — a haven for reading and thinking and dreaming of the future — to uncounted thousands of city children as she helped launch libraries in many of Boston’s schools and create a program to train paraprofessionals as staff.
Over a 20-year period, she helped start scores of libraries, recalled Polly Kaufman, a former Boston schools librarian who was a partner in setting up the program. “Barbara was just the — I don’t know how to put it — the shining example. She loved libraries, she loved children, she loved books, and she was the most gracious person.”
Mrs. Elam was 88 when she died May 7 in the Briarwood Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Needham of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. She had previously lived in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Buzzards Bay.
“She read all the time. She loved books like no one I’ve ever known all my life,” said her daughter Tricia Elam Walker of Dorchester.
When Walker and her siblings were growing up, if their mother was reading, “we could not get her attention. We’d have to stand in front of her and move the book away. She was so engrossed it would take a minute to get her attention back.”
Mrs. Elam was a writer, too, and kept a series of journals throughout her life.
“She wrote about what she was grateful for every day. She was someone who appreciated so much,” her daughter said. “She appreciated sun coming through the window, just small things. She is the woman I hope that I can be. I’m not that woman now, but I have something to strive for. I feel like she’s still teaching me, even though she isn’t here.”
High on the list of Mrs. Elam’s lessons were the pursuit of education and a love of language. Her son Harry J. Elam Jr. is an author and also is vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education at Stanford University. Her late son Keith, who died of cancer in 2010, was a rapper known as Guru, and had been part of Gang Starr, a pioneering duo that melded jazz and hip-hop. Her other daughter, Jocelyn Perron, is a bilingual teacher in Prince George’s County, Md.
“All of that came from my mom, who helped us love words and love reading. I’m a writer because of my mom,” said Walker, an author who teaches creative writing at Howard University.
“She was proud of each and every one of us,” her son said. “We all felt her warmth and her caring.”
Born in Boston, Barbara Aileen Clark was the daughter of E. Edward Clark and the former Leslie Saunders. Her mother took in laundry from white residents, and though her father worked cleaning “wealthy people’s homes, he would leave the house with a suit and tie on,” Walker said. “He had that dignity and he felt that’s how he wanted to travel on public transportation.”
In 1945, Mrs. Elam graduated early from Roxbury Memorial High School, and she was only 16 when she began her studies at Simmons College. She was 20 when she received a bachelor’s degree in library science.
Early in her years at Simmons, she was singing in the choir at St. Mark Congregational Church in Boston when she caught the eye of Harry Elam.
“Near the end of the service, an attractive young woman in the choir stood up to announce that the choir was holding a fund-raising affair sometime in the coming week,” Elam, who would go on to become a pioneering black judge in the state’s courts, later wrote in a memoir. “I was mightily impressed by this young lady, how she looked and how she expressed herself. I decided to attend the fund-raiser. You can imagine my disappointment when she didn’t show up. I was determined that I was going to meet this young woman, so I decided to join the choir.”
His persistence, and his tenor voice, paid off. They married in the fall of 1950 as he was beginning his last year of law school. “I cannot find the words to express the blessing that was mine to have met and married Barbara Aileen Clark,” he wrote, adding that among those blessings was that “as the principal breadwinner in the early days of our marriage, she made it possible for me to try my wings as a young attorney.”
Before marrying, Mrs. Elam had worked as a children’s librarian in Brooklyn, N.Y. After returning to Boston for her wedding, she was a librarian in the South End and East Boston branches of the Boston Public Library. She ensured that each branch “offered good books for children with characters who looked like them,” her husband wrote. “Barbara especially made certain that the branch in which she worked offered children’s books by black authors.”
As her four children were growing up, Mrs. Elam stayed home, and then she returned to being a librarian in the mid-1960s, initially at the Joseph Lee School in Dorchester. Hired later as the Brighton High School librarian, she “ordered several extra copies of Alex Haley’s ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’ after discovering that this particular book piqued the interest of many of the black youngsters at the school,” her husband wrote.
Her most significant achievement, however, was the program to create and staff libraries in all city schools. Previously, high schools and some middle schools had library staff, but that wasn’t the case for all elementary schools. Through the program Mrs. Elam and Kaufman launched, they recruited and trained women from all over the city.
Mrs. Elam decided she wanted more training, too. She graduated with a master’s in education from Boston University, a master’s in library science from Simmons, and was a founding member of the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network. She also helped found a chapter for the state’s mental health association and advocated for constructing facilities to serve the needs of residents in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
“I honestly don’t know how she managed to work, care for her husband and four children, maintain an active involvement in community organizations, and fit in the time it took to attain those additional academic credentials,” wrote her husband, a former state Superior Court justice who died in 2012.
In addition to her three children, Mrs. Elam leaves her brother Sidney Clark of Avon, Conn., and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in St. Mark Congregational Church in Boston. Burial will be in Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston.
As a tribute to Mrs. Elam’s life work, her family is encouraging everyone who attends the service to bring a book that holds special meaning and exchange it for a book brought by someone else.Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.