Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram

The Librarians Who Rode Through the Kentucky Mountains to Deliver Books By Horseback

Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives (colorized)
Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives (colorized)

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

A building with a poster saying WPA
A building advertising the WPA Program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archive)

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.

A woman and two men gathered in a library, sitting at a table full of books.
The WPA sought to increase literacy in Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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.

A woman on horseback handing another person a book at the side of their porch.
The WPA initiated the Pack Horse Program which employed librarians to deliver books to families. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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

A lineup of women outside of a brick building sitting on horseback.
The librarians of the Pack Horse Library rode on horses or mules to deliver reading material. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

“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.

A woman on a horse climbing a hillside.
These librarians would traverse treacherous conditions to deliver their books to families in remote areas. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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.

Two women on horseback surrounded by children beside a brick building.
Two librarians deliver reading material to children in a remote area of Kentucky. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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.

Two women at the end of a flimsy wood bridge over a small ravine.
When roads became impassable by horse or mule, these librarians would make the rest of the journey by foot. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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

A woman pulling magazines from the trunk of an old car.
Donations were accepted by anyone who could afford to give their books, magazines, and newspapers away. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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.”

A woman working at a table in a library.
Librarians part of the Pack Horse Library program would work to ensure that the amount of reading material available would not diminish by repurposing old materials into new ones. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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 back of a woman riding horseback towards a wooden cabin.
Along with books and other reading materials, librarians carried bookmarks with them to help prevent any damages to the pages of the books in circulation. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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

A group of women riding horses trudging through a river.
Librarians had to travel through different conditions in order to make it to their destinations with books in hand. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

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.”

A man reading with two little girls
Families all over Kentucky were grateful for the delivery of books by the Park Horse Library’s librarians. (Photo Credit: Kentucky Libraries and Archives)

More from us: Authors Who Really, Really Disliked The Film Adaptations Of Their Books

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.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!