How can you deliver library books to remote parts of the country? In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, jobless Americans in isolated regions of Kentucky relied on horse-riding librarians.
A part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal, the Pack Horse Library Project was “an ambitious plan to deliver educational resources to struggling eastern Kentucky families.” Championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program also benefited women and children by providing women with a way to earn income.
The Untold Edu animation above shares how library hubs in churches and post offices provided central bases for horse-riding librarians, also known as “book women,” to deliver books and information to those in need across the Appalachian Mountains. From the video:
“Between 1935 and 1943, the initiative employed around 1,000 book women as mobile librarians. Paid less than a dollar a day, they traveled up to 120 miles a week on mule or horseback over rugged mountains and through fast-flowing creeks in all types of weather… In just one year they reached 50,000 families and 155 rural schools. But book women did more than just leave books on people’s porches. By 1940, they had also created 2,582 scrapbooks. They were assembled from donated magazines and included recipes, quilt patterns, mountain ballads, and more.”
Via NPR’s Morning Edition in 2018, 97-year-old former pack horse librarian Mary Ruth Shuler Dieter explains how she would often read the resources out loud to families before continuing to the next delivery:
“They were so happy to get a book. Tickled to death. We always sat under the big old chestnut tree. They didn’t know how to read so I read it and read it again so they could understand it.”
• The Pack Horse Librarians from AppalachianHistory.net.
• Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles from Smithsonian Magazine.
• The New Deal at Khan Academy.
Follow Untold History on YouTube, Instagram, and at UntoldHistory.org.
Watch these related videos next:
• How did the telegraph help win the American Civil War?
• Horseback Riding in Yosemite National Park
• The Temple of Knowledge and what it’s like to grow up in a library
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