During the Great Depression, poor states, like Kentucky, fell even further into poverty as the nation’s economy came to a grinding halt. In response to this national crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in 1933 – a series of programs and public work projects meant to support farmers, unemployed, youth, and the elderly. One of the most unique programs to emerge was the Pack Horse Library Initiative.
“In 1930, up to 31 percent of the people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read” and the educational disparity continued due to residents’ rural locations and the need for family members to work the land (Smithsonian, para. 3). The Pack Horse Library Initiative sent librarians on horseback deep into the Appalachian Mountains to delivery books to their patrons. Libraries were housed in post offices and churches, or wherever the town had room to keep materials. Women who were a part of the project provided their own horses/mules and were paid approximately $28/month. These women rode through the humid summer months and frigid winters, rain or shine, to deliver books.
Known by the local mountaineers as “Bookwomen,” these ladies and their steeds traversed miles of hollows and mountains – sometimes traveling up to 18 miles. The trek was dangerous due to potential animal predators and/or no actual roadways to reach patrons’ homes. The riders would also read materials to their illiterate patrons in an effort to promote any form of literacy and education to the rural mountaineers. Though the Pack Horse Library Initiative ended in 1941, automobiles carrying loads of books would begin to travel to rural areas and deliver materials to their patrons. This would be the beginning of Bookmobiles as we know them today.
For more information and archival images of the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky, check out the resources below:
- KY Libraries & Archives: Pack Horse Librarian Album, 1936
- 2018 NPR Interview with a Pack Horse Librarian
- Works Projects Administration (WPA) materials collection from the University of Kentucky
- “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles”