Author’s Note: This story, written in the month of March, is about a band of hardy librarians, mostly women, who made it possible for folks in far eastern rural corners of the Appalachian Mountains, to have access to books during the Great Depression years. But the month of March also honors America’s National Women’s History Month. Through the years, a day or a week here and there were proclaimed to honor women’s achievements, but in 1987 the United States Congress declared the entire month of March to be National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. I believe this story fits right in with that story, so that our iron-willed, determined women may be recognized for all they accomplished.
(If you’d like to read about National Women’s History Month click on this link. Be sure to hit your back button to return to this story.)
Brief Background of the WPA
In 1935, during bleak depression years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a program called the Works Progress Administration, (Also Known As the WPA,) which in the next eight years put approximately 8.5 million Americans to work. Perhaps best known for infrastructure public works projects, it also covered projects in the arts; actors, musicians, writers and other artists.
The American Library Association and the WPA
Due to the Great Depression and a lack of budget money, the American Library Association estimated in May 1936 that around a third of all Americans no longer had “reasonable” access to public library materials. In order to qualify for higher-paying, skilled jobs, the people in areas such as the Appalachian Mountains needed books and methods to increase their skills. The lack of individual household money made the struggle for survival take precedence over everything else. In addition, rural areas without paved roads were hard to reach and sometimes the houses could be miles apart. There had to be a way to reach people who desperately needed a way to pull themselves out of poverty. A solution was quickly needed!
Pack Horse Library Project
Many libraries and organizations before the Pack Horse Library Project had programs to help get books out to those who needed them, but each only lasted a short time and disappeared either for lack of funds or the guiding hand no longer being there to lead it. There was no ONE program, paying anyone to do it on a regular, standardized basis, especially in the hard-to-get-to areas. Finally, the WPA stepped in, in 1935 and formed the Pack Horse Library Project. Two-hundred people, mostly women, were hired and provided with horses and/or mules for their mode of transportation on unpaved and unimproved back roads. These people became known as “horseback librarians,” “book women,” “book ladies” and “packsaddle librarians.” Even with the obstacles they encountered, they managed to reach around 100,000 residents in rural Kentucky with sorely needed books and means to improve their lives. They had saddle bags full of books and rode their mules and horses into challenging terrain through all kinds of weather. Many times they faced real danger to themselves and their mount during their journey. Eventually there would be 30 different libraries serving up books to folks who needed and wanted them.
There were unimaginable challenges for the packsaddle librarians. The horses could go lame, weather conditions were unpredictable, and both hot and cold temperatures were hard on horse and rider. Packing food that didn’t quickly spoil was difficult too. Another big problem was personal hygiene and privacy problems on the trail. Then too, there was always the danger of wild animals to contend with. Another challenge to the librarians reared its head when the Project first began. These communities were cut off geographically from other areas of the state, and the people had a natural suspicion of strangers and outsiders. The horseback librarians managed to overcome that attitude so well that a story is told that at least one family refused to move to another county because it had no packhorse library service. I’m sure there’s much more than I can imagine that could have been daunting for these librarians and I’m also certain there were times they wanted to quit! But they didn’t, they continued on and did their best. If you can imagine spending hours, even days, on a horse or mule, lugging heavy books in and out of impoverished homes and encouraging, even helping these downtrodden families learn to read, it may have been the biggest challenge of them all. But these were women on a mission and nothing stopped them!
Schools, Children and Families Benefited
During the WPA time, the workers built a few small, native stone schoolhouses, replacing the run-down ramshackle wooden structures. Horseback Librarians were also given the duty of bringing books to those schools. Children learned to read and were known to read the books to their parents. Sometimes it was the librarians themselves who read to the parents, benefiting the entire family. Around 155 schools were eventually served by packhorse librarians, in counties including Breathitt, Cumberland, Floyd, Greenup, Knott, Lee, Letcher, Laurel, Martin, Owsley, Harlan, and others.
The Pack Horse Librarians program ended when the WPA stopped the funding in 1943. It wasn’t until the 1950s that remote communities finally had access to bookmobiles.
There are books and literature available about the librarians on horseback. Here are some books you may find interesting; two for children, one for adults.
“That Book Woman” is a novel introducing children to the Pack Horse Library Project, written by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small.
“Down Cut Shin Creek” is a non-fiction book written by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer about the travels of the book women and men who helped deliver books throughout eastern Kentucky.
Do your kids know what the Great Depression was and how it affected people of the United States? If not, here’s a book written by Cheryl Mullenbach, that explains it in language especially written for children. The Pack Horse Library Project is mentioned in the book.