The Women Who Rode Miles on Horseback to Deliver Library Books

Children greet the “book woman,” 1940. KENTUCKY LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES
The library in Stanton, Kentucky, 1941. UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS RESEARCH CENTER.

From Atlas Obscura:

They were known as the “book women.” They would saddle up, usually at dawn, to pick their way along snowy hillsides and through muddy creeks with a simple goal: to deliver reading material to Kentucky’s isolated mountain communities.

The Pack Horse Library initiative was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), created to help lift America out of the Great Depression, during which, by 1933, unemployment had risen to 40 percent in Appalachia. Roving horseback libraries weren’t entirely new to Kentucky, but this initiative was an opportunity to boost both employment and literacy at the same time.

. . . .

The WPA paid the salaries of the book carriers—almost all the employees were women, making the initiative unusual among WPA programs—but very little else. Counties had to have their own base libraries from which the mounted librarians would travel. Local schools helped cover those costs, and the reading materials—books, magazines, and newspapers—were all donated. In December 1940, a noticein the Mountain Eagle newspaper noted that the Letcher County library “needs donations of books and magazines regardless of how old or worn they may be.”

Old magazines and newspapers were cut and pasted into scrapbooks with particular themes—recipes, for example, or crafts. One such scrapbook, which still is held today at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, New York, contains recipes pasted into a notebook with the following introduction: “Cook books are popular. Anything to do with canning or preserving is welcomed.” Books were repaired in the libraries and, as historian Donald C. Boyd notes, old Christmas cards were circulated to use as bookmarks and prevent damage from dog-eared pages.

. . . .

The book women rode 100 to 120 miles a week, on their own horses or mules, along designated routes, regardless of the weather. If the destination was too remote even for horses, they dismounted and went on foot. In most cases, they were recruited locally—according to Boyd, “a familiar face to otherwise distrustful mountain folk.”

By the end of 1938, there were 274 librarians riding out across 29 counties. In total, the program employed nearly 1,000 riding librarians.

. . . .

In addition to providing reading materials, the book women served as touchstones for these communities. They tried to fill book requests, sometimes stopped to read to those who couldn’t, and helped nurture local pride. As one recipient said, “Them books you brought us has saved our lives.” In the same year as the call for books, the Mountain Eagle exalted the Letcher County library: “The library belong to our community and to our county, and is here to serve us … It is our duty to visit the library and to help in every way that we can, that we may keep it as an active factor in our community.”

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

Pack horse librarians start down Greasy Creek to remote homes, date unknown. UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS RESEARCH CENTER.
Book delivery to a remote home, 1940. KENTUCKY LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES
Book delivery to a remote home, 1940. KENTUCKY LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES
Front porch delivery, c. 1940. KENTUCKY LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES

5 thoughts on “The Women Who Rode Miles on Horseback to Deliver Library Books”

  1. This is amazing to me. I live in Kentucky. Librarians are too often short changed about their hard work.

    • The librarians of The Pack Horse Library were definitely driven by a desire to serve as many people as possible, Sharon.

  2. Kim Michele Richardson’s newest release is about a pack mule librarian. The book is called The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.

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