The Heroic Horseback Librarians of the Great Depression

During the hardships of the Great Depression Kentucky went the extra mile on horseback to make sure everyone had access to books.

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The foundation of America is shaped by three universal truths: life, liberty, and the idea that virtually anything is possible. In the early 1930’s, patrons of Kentucky didn’t have food delivery services. Instead, they had close encounters with horses of a different color. Behold, the heroic team of horseback librarians who sought to revolutionize the way we see education.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

The Great Depression was notably a time for dire survival. In 1929, the stock market collapsed into an unfortunate abyss. Because of this debilitating crash, over 15 million Americans lost their jobs.

Activist Virginia Durr recounts her firsthand experience during this time. “It was a time of terrible suffering. The contradictions were so obvious that it didn’t take a very bright person to realize something was terribly wrong. Have you ever seen a child with rickets? Shaking as with palsy. No proteins, no milk. And the companies pouring milk into gutters.”

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

Family heads could no longer provide basic necessities for their household. Not to mention, educational opportunities were extremely limited.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

Amongst the 50 states affected, Kentucky received the worst of it. Much like the climate of this current society, individuals needed some form of education in order to survive these tough times. With 31% of Kentucky natives being illiterate, the financial state of this area was compromised.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

When President Roosevelt issued The New Deal, a glimmer of hope began to shine for the oppressed.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

Out of this legislation, smaller initiatives were created in order to establish economic growth. Out of those designs, the Pack Horse Library was by far the most innovative and extraordinary.

During a time when education was limited, librarians were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to deliver books to the homes of Kentucky residents.

In order for the operation to work, facilities within the community developed hub spots which held the inventory of books.

These books ranged from philosophical literature to compilations of newspapers. The team of horseback heroes would gather books from these stations and begin their workday.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

Their job, although fulfilling, was no easy feat. In fact, Kentucky locals initially rejected this initiative as they were skeptical of the books being delivered.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

In order to gain their trust, carriers would quote bible verses as a peace offering. Soon, their missions were accepted as something beneficial. Their mission to introduce books of all sorts to underprivileged areas sparked national action.

Source: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

One former Kentucky native who relocated to California acted as a major donor to the project.

In an effort to pay homage to his mother, he donated 500 books. Kentucky children living in remote areas never had the opportunity to possess books of their own.

One member of the team observed, “‘Bring me a book to read,’ is the cry of every child as he runs to meet the librarian with whom he has become acquainted. Not a certain book, but any kind of book. The child has read none of them.” Adults and children everywhere were gaining the education needed to reach a crucial level of enlightenment. By planting the seed of education, many young people were inspired to pursue further means of education.

Eastern Kentucky’s Pack Horse Library Project was a shining light during dark times in America. With the country mired in the depths of the Great Depression, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration with the intent to help bolster the economic stability of the nation.

A literate population was an employable population, and it was on that concept the Pack Horse Library was created. With the WPA’s financial backing, librarians, almost all of whom were women, began hand-delivering used and donated reading materials across the rugged terrain of Appalachia while saddled up on horses and mules.

Within a year of its formation in 1935, the women of the Pack Horse Library initiative were reaching 50,000 families and later approximately 155 schools. Old newspapers and magazines were re-purposed by librarians as ‘best of’ scrapbook content, with collections glued together under specific themes.

By the end of its run in 1943 nearly 1,000 horse-riding librarians delivering books across 29 counties had been employed by the program. Despite dangerous terrain and long hours, the ladies of the Pack Horse Library Project made only $28 a month, or roughly $495 in today’s dollars.

By the mid-1940s bookmobiles were slowly beginning to appear on Kentucky roads, and today the original spirit of book delivery by horse lives on in Kentucky’s nation-leading 75 bookmobiles still in service.

Despite harsh climate conditions, long distances, and challenging ground, the horseback librarians endured. Often times, by foot, as even the horses couldn’t withstand the journey.

Their resilient attitude enabled over 50,000 individuals to receive the gift of learning. Although the initiative officially ran its course in 1943, their outstanding example inspired the creation of bookmobiles.

The 1950s paid tribute to the Horse Riding Librarians by developing a motorized mobile that delivered books to rural areas. In 2014, Kentucky had over 75 bookmobiles. Truly, the value of a reading exceeds even the greatest of boundaries. The remarkable work demonstrated by this league of determined librarians showcases the power of literacy.