Tuesday in Mooseville – SHEnanigans: Packhorse Librarians

A pack horse librarian reads out-loud to a man in the Kentucky mountains; 12 January 1938

When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935, it had the responsibility for creating employment through developing infrastructure across the country. The building projects were concentrated in trades that were largely limited to men at the time, but in 1930, 22% of the workforce was female. Although WPA rules decreed that both husband and wife could not be receiving work through the WPA (this was not pure misogyny but an effort to reach a greater number of breadwinners overall), women needed work too. With many women claiming the head of household mantle, the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects scrambled to find work “appropriate” for women.

For most people, the name WPA brings to mind images of men laboring on highway projects and building parks and schools, but during the Depression, women, too, were heads of households and in need of employment. Work programs for women were first established in 1933 through the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later came under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some women were placed in clerical jobs or worked as librarians, others went to work canning, gardening, and sewing. Nationally, some 7 percent of WPA workers were women engaged in sewing projects. Sewing rooms could be found in rural areas and large cities alike. (“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms in Fort Worth, Texas)

In Kentucky, the WPA faced some unique challenges; building and staffing libraries was part of the New Deal plan, but building libraries, to ultimately be staffed by women, took time. Staffing existing libraries was a more immediate fix, but in Kentucky, 60 of 120 counties didn’t even have a public library.

When the depression hit, librarians struggled in vain to supply books to schools, but elementary schools on average had only one book for every two children. In 1931 and 1932, counties statewide spent a mere 2 cents per pupil for books on average, and twenty-four poorer counties spent no money at all. Most of those counties were in eastern Kentucky, a region of few roads, inaccessible terrain, scattered pockets of isolated people, and the occasional school that could not be reached except on foot or horseback. (Taylor, Nick, American-Made, The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation To Work, Bantam Books, 2008, p. 222)

The solution Kentucky needed was a home-grown solution, revived under the guidance of Elizabeth Fullerton, the state administrator for women’s projects under FERA. In 1913, a coal baron had funded a program of horseback-riding, book-toting librarians in his eastern Kentucky hometown. He died a year later, and with his death, the funding and the program died. Elizabeth Fullerton revived the mounted library, using donated books and FERA funding, and when the WPA took over the role of FERA in 1935, the program was continued and expanded.

Carriers, mostly women, travel the remote sections of the state by horse and mule. They meet once a week at their library headquarters where saddle-bags are replenished with books for eager mountain folk. These carriers, in Hindman, Kentucky, are paid a small salary by the WPA in Kentucky; 4 January 1938.

Over the course of the program, 107 Pack Horse Librarians were hired in eastern Kentucky alone; 96 women and 11 men. The pay averaged about $7.50 per week (roughly $130-$140/week today); the WPA paid the salaries, but each librarian had to provide their own horse or mule. In addition, the local communities had to provide a place where donated books could be stored and collected for delivery by the librarians, and a head librarian would use this central facility to repair and prepare books, as well as maintaining a “card catalog” (often made from cheese boxes, the shape and size of the packaging still used by Velveeta). Some librarians even made bookmarks out of old Christmas cards to encourage patrons to care for the books and not turn down the pages. Books were rotated with other locations, and in some areas, patrons donated recipes and quilting patterns as a way of saying “thank you” for access to the free books and magazines. The head librarian collected these and created scrapbooks, which could then be circulated to other patrons.

The work of the Pack Horse Librarians was strenuous and dangerous. Each librarian had several different routes they covered each week, and the “book women” averaged 100 to 120 miles per week. The terrain was steep and often muddy; it was not unusual for the librarians to dismount for long sections of the route to guide their pack animals safely along narrow paths. The deliveries, much like the postal service, continued in all weather. During the winter, the paths were often completely obscured by snow, but the women kept going, in part to meet their obligation to complete their circuits and revisit each location about once every two weeks, but also because they were surprised and gratified to discover how necessary their visits had become to their patrons.

Trails are hard and riding for this Pack Horse Librarian is dangerous excepting at such points where the WPA has completed its farm-to-market road program; 12 January 1938.

After overcoming some initial suspicion by people unaccustomed to visitors, the “library ladies” were greeted as royalty. Illiteracy in the region was high, but eagerness to learn was higher. Some people borrowed photo magazines to expand their horizons without relying on words; others borrowed books that their children could read to them (Robinson Crusoe and anything by Mark Twain were particular favorites); some librarians took the time to read to the ill, infirm, or illiterate. The librarians also visited schools, and teachers learned to expect that children would run out of the classroom when the hooves of the pack horse was heard.

Works Progress Administration Pack Horse Librarians make regular calls at mountain schools where children are furnished with books for themselves and books to read to their illiterate parents and elders. The little native stone school shown here was built by the WPA in Kentucky and replaced an antiquated log schools; 11 January 1938.

What these women accomplished in the short-term is astonishing. In 1936, before the program was fully operational, 33,000 books and magazines were delivered to 57,00 families (Taylor, p. 227).

During its height, the program boasted 30 libraries serving close to 100,000 Eastern Kentucky residents. Interest in ideas outside the realm of Appalachia, an appreciation for education, and an introduction to global cultures were fostered by the program in an area where one-room schoolhouses and churches were the only means of learning about the world.

The pack horse libraries came to an end in 1943 when the W.P.A. withdrew its funding from the project. Consequently, many of the areas served were left with no library service whatsoever. Some effort was made to retain the existing collections, being made available in county courthouses. However, the delivery service needed for isolated communities was no longer available, leaving some communities without access to books for decades until bookmobiles were introduced to the area in the late 1950s. (The Pack Horse Librarians)

It should not be surprising that today Kentucky has the highest number of bookmobiles of any state. The legacy of the Pack Horse Librarians lives on. (Bookmobiles alive and kicking in Kentucky which has more than any other state; 75 are on the road)

I have a job interview this morning, so I will not be around until sometime in the afternoon.

  2 comments for “Tuesday in Mooseville – SHEnanigans: Packhorse Librarians

  1. basket
    November 12, 2019 at 10:27 am

    Good luck at your interview! And thank you for this post; it was really fascinating.

  2. bfitzinAR
    November 12, 2019 at 10:37 am

    First off Holding the Good Thought for the interview. I love and periodically find & re-read American Made… maybe it’s time to do that again. 😁 I’m surprised the librarians were paid so low. Most WPA jobs paid $16 a week. You’d have thought they’d have gotten the “base rate” as it were. Especially since they had to provide their own horse/mule – and books. Kentucky was the worst but it wasn’t the only area that got dumped in the grease as far as these programs are concerned when the WPA shut down in 1943. Why they did is understandable – they were a jobs program and by 1943 the unemployment rate was something like .5 (yes, that’s point five) percent. But the isolated and rural areas still had the need. To a certain extent still do, the WPA’s farm-to-market road network and modern technology not withstanding.

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