The Librarians Who Rode Horseback Through Rough Terrain To Delivery Books
by Trisha Leigh
One of the first lessons us bookworms learn as kids is that librarians are awesome. They are portals to other worlds, they sing songs with us, they’re always there with a recommendation or to fangirl over a book no one else really cares about, too.
It turns out this has always been the case, because back in the days of horseback deliveries, librarians made their way into the treacherous mountains to make sure the children who lived there (and their parents) wouldn’t have to go without books.
Known as “book women,” they belonged to the Pack Horse Library, part of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The WPA was created in an attempt to lift America out of the Great Depression, which had hit Appalachia particularly hard, with unemployment rates as high as 40% in 1933.
Women signed up to saddle up and traverse snowy hillsides, muddy creeks, and mountain passes to help boost literacy and, hopefully, employment in the process.
They made a good salary for their rides, but used books from local libraries and typically their own horses. Local schools helped cover the cost of additional books and also donated additional reading materials like magazines and newspapers.
One notice, posted December 1940 in the Mountain Eagle, was typical for the time.
In it, they stated the Letcher County library “needs donations of books and magazines regardless of how old or worn they may be.”
The librarians used these donations to put together scrapbooks on specific topics like cooking, knitting, or other helpful themes. They also repaired books as they became more worn and carried things like old Christmas cards for people to use as bookmarks instead of dog-earing the pages.
The book women rode between 100 and 120 miles every week along designated routes and typically were not dissuaded by poor or impending weather. Many serviced households too remote to be reached even on the back of a horse or mule and went the remaining miles on foot.
A majority were locals, as the “distrustful mountain folk” would likely have spurned a visit from an outsider.
The women also served as touchstones to their community, bringing news from town, filling requests, nurturing local pride, and taking the time to read books to those who were unable to do so for themselves.
In 1940, the Mountain Eagle wrote “The library belong to our community and to our county, and is here to serve us … It is our duty to visit the library and to help in every way that we can, that we may keep is as an active factor in our community.”
In 1938 the program employed 274 librarians in 29 counties, and by the time funding ceased in 1943, more than 1000 were out doing the good work.
The WPA was dissolved as more and more people joined the workforce due to the first wold war.
In the 1950s, bookmobiles largely took the place of the lone librarian carting reads on horseback, but the people the librarians served never forgot their kindness.