Pack Horse Libraries Brought Books to Remote Mountain Areas of Kentucky

Pack Horse
Submitted by Joel Schorn, ATLA Metadata Analyst

In 1930s eastern Kentucky books were hard to come by. The state circulated only one book per person, far below the American Library Association’s then standard of five to ten. On top of that, up to 31 percent of people in the region were illiterate.

Books not only would provide the materials to help residents learn to read. They would also offer people a remedy to the crippling poverty of the Depression and equip them to respond to the uncertainties and opportunities that industrialization was bringing to eastern Kentucky. Without a base of available libraries, however, all of this was difficult to accomplish.

To respond to this need, says a article by Eliza McGraw, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) implemented the Pack Horse Library program. Though not the first effort to get books into the Appalachian region of Kentucky, the pack horse library initiative was the most extensive. Starting in 1934 it collected books in post offices, churches, and other places that made themselves available. The librarians who staffed these locations would then give books to carriers to take them into the mountains by horse or mule — traveling in all weather. The project was unique for a New Deal program in that it needed the cooperation of local citizens.

Pack horse librarians cross footlogs to reach homes.

Using their own horses or mules, carriers traveled their circuits at least twice a month and rode 100 to 120 miles a week. For their efforts, they received $28 a month, about $495 in today’s dollars. By 1936 pack horse librarians were serving 50,000 families and 155 public schools by 1937.

Most books and magazines came from donations, first in-state and then as word of the effort spread from over half the states of the U.S. Donated items also included Sunday school materials and textbooks. Especially popular were works by Mark Twain and Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe.

In addition to collecting and distributing books, the librarians also served as conservators and recyclers. They repaired books and repurposed Christmas cards into bookmarks to discourage users from dog-earing pages. These resourceful librarians also recycled worn-out books by pasting stories and illustrations from them into binders, a practice that encouraged the creation and circulation of recipe collections and quilt patterns.

The Pack Horse Library ceased in 1943 with the end of the WPA, but by 1946 motorized bookmobiles began operation. This heritage is reflected today by the fact that in 2014 Kentucky’s libraries had 75 bookmobiles, the largest number in the U.S.

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Photos credit: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library

Joel Schorn is a Metadata-Analyst for ATLA. He is also a freelance writer and editor and teaches online through the University of Notre Dame’s Satellite Theological Education Project (STEP).


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