The Works Progress Administration would prove a giant boost to libraries and bookmobiles alike. Communities across the country received library service for the first time, and Kentucky certainly needed the help. At the start of the Great Depression, 63 percent of Kentuckians had no access to a library, and most of their children attended schools without one as well. Much of Kentucky was still unpaved however, and there had to be a way to get books to people in the most remote corners of the state. This problem birthed one of the more unique WPA programs, the Pack Horse Librarian Project.
Reporting for duty. A group of pack horse librarians get ready to make deliveries.
While the WPA paid the salaries of the librarians, everything else came from native Kentuckians. The horses and mules were provided by the riders themselves, mostly local young women. The books and magazines came from a variety of organizations, including women’s clubs, churches, universities, libraries, schools, and Boy Scout troops. The librarians organized and kept the collections in a headquarters located in the heart of the county. As with other traveling libraries, this ”headquarters“ was often a home or business willing to house the books. The pack horse librarians then carried the reading material (in everything from saddlebags to pillow cases) to schools and isolated cabins throughout the area. The carriers went out three to four times a week, a different route every day, each route being repeated about every two weeks. The average route was 18 miles, and the carrier traveled up to 80 miles a week. The ruggedness of the terrain is demonstrated by the names of the creeks they travelled, such as Cut Shin, Troublesome, and Hell-for-Sartin. The carriers brought books to one-room schoolhouses that hitherto had had only a handful of texts.
A pack horse librarian visits a Kentucky schoolhouse.
To private houses and cabins, they brought not only books but also magazines, religious pamphlets, sermons, and booklets covering cooking and other household chores. The women receiving the reading materials often felt guilty accepting something for free, and insisted on paying however they could. This currency often came in the form of food, recipes, and quilt patterns. Some of the rding librarians collected the latter two in scrapbooks.
A pack horse librarian making her way through Wooton, Kentucky. Note the sack she uses for a saddlebag.
The program ran from 1935 to 1943 and covered over 30 Kentucky counties. The success of the program and enthusiasm Kentuckians had for the Project might explain why to this day, Kentucky has more bookmobiles than any other state.
Down Cut Shin Creek; The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. Kathi Appelt and Cannella Schmitzer. HaperCollins Children’s Books, 2001.
Boyd, Donald. “The Book Women of Kentucy : The WPA Pack Horse Library Project, 1935-1943.” Libraries & the Cultural Record,. 42.no. 2 (2007): 111-128.