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The Pack Horse Librarian-Say What?

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

I remember going to the library while in school and being "shushed" repeatedly by our librarian. I did not understand the librarian. They buzzed around the library putting books away, rarely spoke, and seemed perfectly content with thousands of books and solitude. Only as an adult, and an author, do I understand. Two things I respect are books and solitude!

My family is from Eastern, Kentucky, and many still live/work there. The back hollers and some of the roads are still treacherous. Water washes roads out, creek beds create breaks in the pavement, rocks tumble, and wild animals roam the mountains. After watching a television program on The Pack Horse Librarians, I knew I had to blog on the subject. These women not only loved books, but set an amazing standard we all should adopt.

During the Depression, the years after 1929, the Appalachians were hit hard. Coal mines were shut down. Many people lived in dire poverty with no hope. In 1936, as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Kentucky WPA began to hire pack horse librarians, mostly women, to carry books to isolated cabins, rural school houses, the sick, and homebound coalminers.

The routes were rugged and treacherous. The “book women” followed creek beds and fence routes through summer heat and frozen winters — their saddlebags and pillowcases stuffed with donated books and magazines. Some joked their mules/horses had lopsided legs from the terrain. They also created scrapbooks from damaged reading material with their own two hands. They cut pictures and words then pasted them onto paper and bound them with simple string to create a book. Many people were illiterate, but wanted to learn, so the women often stayed and read to them.

The pay was $28 a month. Each woman was required to supply her own horse or mule, their food and boarding. When the program closed in 1943 as America entered World War II, nearly one thousand pack horse librarians had served 1.5 million people in 48 Kentucky counties.

Pretty amazing if you ask me! I think when I visit my library from now on, I will look at my librarian with fresh eyes. There is a wealth of information online along with pictures of these great librarians. Check them out when you have time!

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