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Book Ladies: Heroic Librarians Delivering Books on Horseback

Thelma is an award-winning writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She enjoys writing about rural America, especially Appalachia.

Pack Horse Librarian Delivering Books to a Mountain School

Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky. Works Project Administration Pack Horse Librarian

Hindman, Knott County, Kentucky. Works Project Administration Pack Horse Librarian

How the Pack Horse Library Project Began

In 1936, the American Library Association recognized over 1/3 of the U.S. population did not have access to a library. According to historian Donald C. Boyd, statistics showed 31% of the adults living in eastern Kentucky could not read. In an effort to combat illiteracy and the effects of the Depression, the federal government established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal platform. The task was to establish public projects that created millions of jobs and provided valuable services to citizens, such as access to books. As a result, on the advice of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the WPA founded the Pack Horse Library Project in Appalachia.

The Great Depression was a time in U.S. history that was defined by poverty, lack of jobs and poor quality education. Lasting from 1929 until the late 1930s, nowhere were the effects of this economic downfall more prominent than the Appalachian mountains, especially the state of Kentucky.

To many residents of eastern Kentucky, something as basic as reading a book seemed like an impossibility, as there was no access to libraries and no funds to purchase books. Books were not considered a necessity by these Appalachian folks who were struggling to put food on the supper table.

Without enough money to feed their bodies, how in the world could money be found to feed their minds?

— First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

The Book Ladies Traveled Deep Into the Mountains

Leslie County, in eastern Kentucky, was the first location for the rural outreach program. Female mountaineers were recruited to deliver books to hamlets using their own horses or mules. They traveled deep into the mountains through rugged territory to deliver books to families in remote locations. Due to the limited access, they sometimes followed creeks and fence lines as their only source of direction. It was imperative that they have a keen familiarity with the area.

With saddlebags or pillowcases full of books and magazines, they visited families and churches year-round regardless of weather conditions. It was not uncommon for the "book ladies" to head up into the mountains in the snow and ice or in the heat of a Kentucky summer.

Soon after, other counties in the state participated. These stalwart women rode out at least twice a month, covering a radius of 100 to 120 miles. At the height of the program, books were received by 50,000 families and 155 public schools.

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Their pay of $28 a month may seem unjust compensation to some. However, their reward was the knowledge they were improving their neighbors' literacy, and nothing could compare with the delight on the faces, young and old alike, when the book lady rode into town.

It would be difficult to estimate how much this good work is doing to brighten the lives of the people in our Kentucky mountains.

— Gladys Lainhart, Pack Horse Librarian

Pack horse librarian reading to a bedridden  man and his wife.

Pack horse librarian reading to a bedridden man and his wife.

Community Involvement

Churches and other social organizations sponsored book drives to gather more books for the program. The author most requested by readers was Mark Twain and the most popular books were Robinson Crusoe, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Gulliver's Travels.

On the book lady's next visit, she retrieved the books previously left so they could be recycled. To keep the pages from becoming dog-eared, the readers were given bookmarks which were made by homemaker clubs from used Christmas and birthday cards.

The communities responded overwhelmingly to help their less fortunate neighbors during this depressing time. As news of the program traveled, monetary donations and books were received from people all across the country.

Government Ended the Program

In 1943, the WPA program was suspended due to the United States entering World War II. To the disappointment of many of the remote mountaineers who welcomed the book ladies, the Pack Horse Library Project ended and was never resumed by the government.

Librarian Riding a Remote Trail Circa 1936 - 1943

Booneville, Owsley County, Kentucky Works Project Administration Pack Horse Librarian. Circa 1936 - 1943

Booneville, Owsley County, Kentucky Works Project Administration Pack Horse Librarian. Circa 1936 - 1943

Educational Resource for Children Ages 4 to 8

© 2022 Thelma Raker Coffone

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