Before the Bookmobile: When Librarians Rode on Horseback to Deliver Books to Rural Americans During the Great Depression

An odd phe­nom­e­non has been at work in the past few years. Print book sales slope upward while eBook sales creep down. The trend man­i­fests the oppo­site of what most people—or most peo­ple who write about these things—expected to hap­pen, quite rea­son­ably in many respects. Per­haps through sheer his­tor­i­cal momen­tum, print retains its aura of author­i­ty.

But every­one knows that buy­ing isn’t read­ing, which may indeed be in decline giv­en the pri­ma­cy of images, audio, and video, of YouTube explain­ers and doc­u­men­taries such as the one above, which tells the tale of the “Pack Horse Librar­i­ans.”

These for­got­ten heroes, like the famed Pony Express, braved wind, rain, and rough ter­rain to deliv­er books to iso­lat­ed set­tlers who oth­er­wise may have had noth­ing to read.

But this is not a tale of cow­boys and fron­tiers­men. The Pack Horse Librar­i­ans appeared in an Indus­tri­al Age, and what’s more they were most­ly women. Called “book ladies” and “pack­sad­dle librar­i­ans,” the librar­i­ans were dep­u­tized dur­ing the New Deal, when FDR sought to end the Great Depres­sion by cre­at­ing hun­dreds of jobs addressed to the country’s real social, mate­r­i­al, and cul­tur­al needs. In this case, the Pack Horse Librar­i­ans respond­ed to what many of us might con­sid­er a cri­sis, if not a crime.

“About 63% of the res­i­dents of Ken­tucky were with­out access to pub­lic libraries,” and some­where around 30% of rur­al Ken­tuck­ians were illit­er­ate. Those rur­al Ken­tuck­ians saw edu­ca­tion as a way out of pover­ty, and the Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion agreed, over­see­ing the book deliv­ery project between 1935 and 1943. “Book women” made around $28 a month (a lit­tle over $500 in 2017) deliv­er­ing books to homes and school­hous­es. By 1936, writes the site Appalachi­an His­to­ry, “hand­made and donat­ed mate­ri­als could not sus­tain the cir­cu­la­tion needs of the pack horse patrons.”

Sur­veys of read­ers found that pack horse patrons could not get enough of books about trav­el, adven­ture and reli­gion, and detec­tive and romance mag­a­zines. Children’s pic­ture books were also immense­ly pop­u­lar, not only with young res­i­dents but also their illit­er­ate par­ents. Per head­quar­ters, approx­i­mate­ly 800 books had to be shared among five to ten thou­sand patrons.

To com­pen­sate for scarci­ty, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky pre­sen­ta­tion notes, librar­i­ans them­selves cre­at­ed books of “moun­tain recipes and scrap books of cur­rent events.” But the ser­vice quick­ly grew to deliv­er­ing more than 3,000 donat­ed books per month, after a dri­ve in which every PTA mem­ber in the state gave to the cause.

Eleanor Roo­sevelt (pho­tographed above vis­it­ing a Pack­horse Library in West Lib­er­ty, KY) was a cham­pi­on of the ser­vice, which founder Eliz­a­beth Fuller­ton mod­eled after a sim­i­lar ven­ture in 1913, itself a pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of work done by the Ken­tucky Fed­er­a­tion of Women’s Clubs in the late 19th cen­tu­ry.

We can see that the his­to­ry of women librar­i­ans on horse­back goes back quite a ways. But it is a his­to­ry now for­got­ten, despite the efforts of recent books like Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librar­i­ans of Ken­tucky. A recent trend involves sug­gest­ing his­tor­i­cal Amer­i­can fig­ures who might replace all those mon­u­ments to the Con­fed­er­a­cy. We might well add Pack Horse Librar­i­ans to the dis­tin­guished list of can­di­dates.

The ser­vice lost its fund­ing in 1943, “leav­ing some com­mu­ni­ties with­out access to books for decades,” Appalachi­an His­to­ry writes, “until book­mo­biles were intro­duced to the area in the late 1950s.” These ser­vices seem quaint in an era when wide­spread deliv­ery by drone seems immi­nent. We seem­ing­ly live in the most infor­ma­tion-rich, instant access soci­ety in his­to­ry. Yet a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple in the U.S. and around the world have lit­tle to no access to the inter­net. And a sim­i­lar degree of illiteracy—at least of basic infor­ma­tion and crit­i­cal reasoning—may war­rant a sim­i­lar­ly direct inter­ven­tion.

via The Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Libraries Shaped Like Doc­tor Who’s Time-Trav­el­ing TARDIS Pop Up in Detroit, Saska­toon, Macon & Oth­er Cities

Strik­ing Poster Col­lec­tion from the Great Depres­sion Shows That the US Gov­ern­ment Once Sup­port­ed the Arts in Amer­i­ca

The Future of Con­tent Deliv­ery

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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