Librarians have always had a strong connection with their communities. The Pack Horse Librarians of the interwar period are a remarkable example of librarians going out of their way for the people they serve. They traveled by horseback to deliver books to folks living in remote areas. Trekking through unfavorable weather conditions and terrain, these women stopped at little to make sure everyone had access to reading materials during the Great Depression.
Franklin Roosevelt created the WPA
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Formed in 1935, it was a New Deal agency that aimed to provide work for people struggling with unemployment.
In 1930, it was estimated that up to 31 percent of eastern Kentucky’s population was illiterate. By the time the WPA was formed, Kentucky had fallen behind the American Library Association’s five to 10 books per capita in circulation, with only one book circulating per capita.
Within the WPA was the Pack Horse Library, which employed women to deliver reading materials and help boost literacy in remote areas, especially in eastern Kentucky. It was hoped that increasing literacy would also increase employment.
Female librarians would trek through treacherous conditions on their horses and mules
“Libraries” were formed inside churches and post offices, built with donations from communities and neighbors no longer using their reading materials. Librarians would pack up their saddle bags full of these books, magazines, and newspapers and ride horseback to deliver them.
Some librarians trekked 100 to 120 miles per week delivering reading materials to homes in remote areas of eastern Kentucky. Their routes were through the mountains, and oftentimes they would reach parts of their journey that could not be made on horseback. They would make the rest of the journey on foot.
In the more remote areas, residents were suspicious of these women who came to deliver reading material. In some cases, they were even willing to read books to those who were incapable. In an effort to gain their trust, the librarians read the Bible aloud, which helped draw interest in their purpose and in the other materials they were carrying.
The women who signed up to deliver books to remote areas were paid rather well, at about $28 per month. However, they had to provide their own horses or mules to help with their deliveries.
Librarians did what they could to keep books in circulation
The reading materials were largely donated by people in the surrounding areas. In 1940, Letcher County Library posted a notice in the Mountain Eagle saying it needed “donations of books and magazines regardless of how old or worn they may be.”
When books became so worn they were no longer repairable, the librarians would cut them up and use the scraps to create new materials. They created scrapbooks about cooking, knitting, and other useful skills.
The librarians were also equipped with old Christmas cards while they delivered their reading materials. This was their way of providing people with bookmarks so that they would not dog-ear the corners of the books, causing damage.
The program was abandoned with the outbreak of war
By 1938, the Pack Horse Library had 274 women employed in 29 counties, servicing over 50,000 families. Clearly, communities were thankful for the service. One supervisor in the program explained, “‘Bring me a book to read,’ is the cry of every child as he runs to meet the librarian with whom he has become acquainted. Not a certain book, but any kind of book. The child has read none of them.”
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However, the Pack Horse Library and the WPA were not to last. In 1943, with more employment being generated due to the war effort, the WPA lost all funding. This put more than 1,000 librarians out of work, but their impact on the community was not forgotten. During the 1950s, horseback librarians were simply replaced by the bookmobile. Reading materials were still delivered to remote areas and literacy rose significantly.