A woman stashes a collection of books and magazines into her saddle bag. She mounts her horse and prepares for the long day, heading off into the Appalachian hills, following creeks and the contours of hillsides. Armed with the power of words, she tackles exhausting days in the saddle, insufferable weather, and impassable routes. All to bring books to her community.
In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of the New Deal and an enormous public effort aimed at relieving the economic hardship that had come with the trying times. Employing more than 8.5 million people on 1.4 million public projects, the WPA focused on not just infrastructure, but also arts, culture, and education. It employed people to do everything from building bridges to writing great works of literature to sewing dresses. The endeavor was so large that it led one researcher to write in a report: “An enumeration of all the projects undertaken and completed by the WPA during its lifetime would include almost every type of work imaginable.”
That work also included librarians. But not just any kind of librarian. Librarians on horseback.
Known as “book women,” the Pack Horse Library Project of the WPA might just have been one of its most unique, a creative solution to the dire economic situation in eastern Kentucky. Here in rural Appalachia, infrastructure was behind the rest of the country, coal workers had seen their jobs disappear, and people were suffering in poverty. As Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer write in Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, “Though tough and resilient by nature, many Kentuckians barely hung on.”
As one recipient told their packhorse librarian, “them books you brought us has saved our lives.”
Illiteracy rates were high too, around 30% in 1930, and while there was a need for literacy education, isolated mountain communities made it difficult for people to have access to the books that would help them do so. According to the Smithsonian, in 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita, much lower than the American Library Association standard of five to ten, and at the beginning of the Great Depression, over 60% of Kentucky’s residents didn’t have access to public libraries.
Getting books into the hands of the community required a creative solution and mobile librarians on horseback was it. Their mode of transportation allowed them to access these rural and isolated communities where sometimes the only way to navigate was to follow the creek bed.
The idea of librarians on horseback had come a couple of decades earlier in 1913, when in Paintsville, Kentucky, May F. Stafford and the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs had implemented a mobile library. While that program ended after only a year because of funding issues, it was an inspiration to Elizabeth Fullerton. Working with the WPA, Fullerton repurposed the idea in 1935, creating the Pack Horse Library Project, soon to be championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who was particularly concerned with New Deal programs that supported women’s employment, which she saw as essential for reviving the economy.
Librarians were paid $28 a month, and they were responsible for riding over 100 miles a week to distribute books. They would rent their own horses (sometimes mules), or borrow from local farmers, and libraries were housed in whatever local building would have them. They would make the rounds to pick up books that had already been read, and drop off new ones, working in all conditions and making do with what they had. “Weather is no obstacle in the life of a Pack Horse Librarian in Kentucky – none of her equipment is furnished by the Works Project Administration. Lacking a pair of saddle-bags, she substitutes a meal sack and goes on her way,” stated one photo caption.
Their collection of books was entirely dependent on donations by local groups, like churches and PTA organizations, and eventually drew a national interest as well. A woman wrote a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times titled “Reading Matter Wanted,” asking people to send spare books and magazines to the pack horse libraries, writing, “It would be difficult to estimate how much good this work is doing in brightening the lives of the people in the Kentucky mountains.”
The effort was part of the WPA’s Library Extension program, which funded over 5,800 traveling libraries, providing mobile access to books to some of America’s most remote communities. But unlike the ease of running a bookmobile, the pack horse librarians of Kentucky had their work cut out for them. The job was very physical in nature, requiring them to navigate difficult landscapes in varying conditions. As one photo caption said: “Trails are hard and riding is dangerous.”
These librarians weren’t just tough, they were also creative in the ways that they served their communities. Librarians would often read to those who couldn’t, and to meet demand they would repair well-read books so that they could be distributed again. They even created their own scrapbooks, compiling newspaper and magazine articles, local recipes, and pictures. Their committed work helped to bring reading material and connect over 100,000 people.
Social change isn’t always smooth, and there was some skepticism at first, dealt with by the librarians by standing at the edge of someone’s yard and reading Bible verses aloud. But as the program grew, so did the appreciation for it, “there is an ever-increasing demand that builds and grows,” wrote one newspaper, “To say that these mountain folk are eager is no exaggeration…. Just recently a young man walked eight miles from his home to a library center for a new supply of books.”
Their tenacity brought another welcomed element in dire times: joy
The librarians provided essential access to reading material, particularly for children who often didn’t have libraries in their rural schools, and pictures books could double as material for illiterate adults, but their tenacity brought another welcomed element in dire times: joy. “They were so happy to get a book. Tickled to death,” Mary Ruth Shuler Dieter, who worked as a packhorse librarian told the Kitchen Sisters podcast. “We always sat under the big old chestnut tree. They didn’t know how to read so I read it and read it again so they could understand it.”
Books were a pathway to education, but also in hard times, they were a source of respite. As one 7-year-old boy who had been injured told a librarian, “learn me to read and then I won’t be lonesome anymore.”
It’s easy to forget how much of a radical idea public libraries truly are. They continue to be an integral part of healthy communities, especially rural ones where they often provide more services than just lending books. The Pack Horse Library project ended in 1943, having employed almost 1,000 librarians during its time, and motorized bookmobiles would eventually fill the gap to continue serving rural communities, and still do. Today, the stories of the inspiring pack horse librarians have inspired books of their own, the legacy of their contribution finally written down. Their work is a reminder of the raw power of the stories, words, and idea that come alive in the pages of books. As one recipient told their packhorse librarian, “them books you brought us has saved our lives.”