The Great Depression plunged the nation into poverty. Kentucky, already an impoverished state, was severely impacted. Food, education and any economic opportunities were scarce to non-existent. Thousands lived on the brink of starvation. Appalachians were struggling and those people living in the craggy, 10,000 square mile portion of eastern Kentucky, were still far behind their neighbors in gaining electricity, highways or even roads. They lacked books, or access to them. In 1930 close to 31% of people in eastern Kentucky could not read. The residents were eager to learn but opportunities were scarce.
The Pack Horse Library Initiative was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. It sent librarians deep into the mountains and undeveloped parts of Appalachia to deliver reading materials. In addition to providing reading materials, the book women served as touchstones for these communities. They tried to fill book requests, sometimes stopped to read to those who couldn’t, and helped nurture local pride. As one recipient said, “Them books you brought us has saved our lives.”
The horses splashed through iced-over creeks, up into the mountains with no discernible path, their saddlebags and baskets stuffed with all kinds of books, magazines, newspapers, Sunday school materials, and textbooks for these very rural and isolated people. Their feet were often frozen in the stirrups in winter or they sweltered in summer sun. They often began their day by loading up books before dawn and would return just before dusk. Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week. In 1936, packhorse librarians served 50,000 families, and, by 1937, 155 public schools. Children loved the program; many mountain schools didn’t have libraries, and since they were so far from public libraries, most students had never checked out a book. ”‘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,” wrote one Pack Horse Library supervisor. “Not a certain book, but any kind of book. The child has read none of them.”
Roads could be impassable, and the women used their own animals, earning about $28 per month. One librarian had to hike her 18-mile route when her mule died. Another woman joked that the horses she rode had shorter legs on one side than the other so they wouldn’t slip, slide and fall off the steep mountain paths. Some families initially resisted the librarians, suspicious of outsiders riding in with unknown materials. In a bid to earn their trust, carriers would read Bible passages aloud. Many had only heard them through oral tradition, and the idea that the packhorse librarians could offer access to the Bible cast a positive light on their other materials.
The Pack Horse Library Project was not without it’s challenges but was considered a rousing success. But success sometimes carried with it other problems. For instance, one family complained that their son's new nightly reading habits meant they had to purchase more lamp oil. Another parent grew irate over the fact that he could not get his children to do their chores because all they wanted to do was sit and read. Still, the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks. Over 100,000 people participated in this service which provided a meaningful escape from their troubles.
I can't help but think, that if this service was needed today, the awesome folks at the Mancos Public Library would be front and center, with saddle bags packed full. They are just that kind of library!
Suggestion for Further Reading:
Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, by Kathi Appelt, 2001