Judy Moore: Librarians on horseback

Published 12:30 pm Thursday, May 11, 2023

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Judy MooreLibrarians are phenomenal individuals who bring so much to a community. They provide services through education and outreach that can have a lasting impact on our lives. The librarians of the Pack Horse Library Program are examples of these amazing givers of knowledge.

During The Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Work Progress Administration(WPA) initiative, which was a means of building back a struggling U. S. economy by putting people back to work who were unemployed. One of the programs in this initiative was The Pack Horse Library Project.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spearheaded that operation, which employed people to deliver books to remote areas in the Appalachians of rural Eastern Kentucky from 1935 to 1943. Most of these librarians were women and they were known as “book ladies’’ and “packsaddle librarians”. The project employed about 200 people and served around 100,000 residents in rural Kentucky. At the time of the program’s inception, the American Library Association estimated that in May 1936 about a third of all Americans no longer had access to public library materials due to the Depression and budget constraints.

Before, many rural Eastern Kentuckians didn’t have access to books and the illiteracy rate was about 31 percent. These individuals desired to improve the education for their families because they believed it was a way out of poverty.

Counties such as Whitley County had to have their own base libraries from which the librarians traveled to and fro by horseback or mules. The book ladies provided their own horses or mules with some loaned out from local farmers. In addition, the traveled routes were so steep that one woman, Grace Caudill Lucas, had to lead her horse across the cliffs. Others had deep water so high that a rider’s feet “froze to the stirrups”.

In fact, one librarian’s mule was old, so she had to ride part of the way and walk the other half. The women, over a month’s time, would travel 100 to 120 miles a week at least twice, totalling about 4,905 miles. Furthermore, their book packs could hold around 100 books. Donations of books were made by community members who provided places to store books and the supplies needed by the librarians. Each pack horse library had a clerk and four to 10 librarians. The head librarian would process the books, repair them and get items ready for delivery. The salary for the pack horse librarians was 28 dollars monthly and they delivered to homes and schoolhouses.

Each month, the librarians would meet at the base libraries in what they called “conferences” and for many families, the pack horse librarian was the only breadwinner. Books were rotated between locations and catered to what the patrons desired to read. Interests ranged from history, religion, biographies; even the Bible and children’s books were popular, with the Good Book being the most requested. Moreover, recipe and quilting books were created by women who organized them in binders sharing them throughout Eastern Kentucky.

Amazingly, many got to view their first moving picture because of the pack horse librarians. Also, the pack horse librarians read to individuals and their families. The initial reaction of a stranger coming to their home was erased with a welcome connection being developed through education, exposing them to new ideas.

Organizations such as the PTA and Women’s Clubs raised funds to help purchase new books. Yet, unfortunately, the WPA stopped funding the Pack Horse Library Project in 1943. Why? Were African American, Native American and Asian American families served before it ended? The Pack Horse Library initiative was staffed with women who went above and beyond to enrich the lives of others by providing services to a region of Kentucky that was isolated. These ladies should be heralded as the gatekeepers of knowledge who knew the importance of the library and the openness of the world, exposing the multitudes to journeys that can take you anywhere you desire to go.

Judy Moore lives in Wylliesburg, is a tour guide at the Central High Museum and can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.