I had never heard of these amazing women until the INSH video happened to pop up in my Facebook feed one day. I love books, libraries, and horses so was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more. I dove deep on this one. I checked out 7 books from the library and read almost every webpage written about these women. Heroes is definitely an apt description in my opinion.
Pack Horse Library Initiative
The Pack Horse Library project was part of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression. It was created to deliver books to the remote Appalachian Mountain regions. The librarians provided their own horses or mules. The government paid a salary of $28 per month (equal to about $450 in current day earnings) for a librarian to maintain a headquarters facility of some sort as well as carry books on horseback throughout the county. The government did not pay for books or materials or the headquarters facilities which held the books. Donations of used books provided circulation material. A book would take about a month to complete a circuit at which point it was returned to headquarters to be mended, cleaned, and transferred to a different circuit. Each carrier would go out three or four times per week, following a different route each time and repeating the routes every two weeks.
Ride a mile in their boots
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be a pack horse librarian?
I like to ride horses but I’m a pretty casual, fair-weather rider. After an hour in the saddle these days, my knees are about to break and my sit-bone is sore. As a teenager I was able to participate in a Girl Scout Wider Opportunity program (Saddle Straddle) that involved a 6-day pack trip through the wilderness of Girl Scout National Center West in Wyoming (a place that no longer exists, sadly, though upon closer reading of that link, I see that 2/3 of the land was sold to the Nature Conservancy which is good news at least.) You adapt over time and are able to ride for longer with less discomfort. But even still, all day in a saddle, even in good weather and easy riding conditions, is exhausting.
These ladies were not riding in good weather or easy conditions. Think Postal Service –
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
(Not an official motto by the way but apparently inspiration from the Persian mail couriers of about 490 BCE). Up hill and down dale. Rain, snow, wind, or heat. Poorly outfitted (this was the deep Appalachian mountain country during the Great Depression and there were certainly no REIs to stock up on tech gear and layers) but tough and dedicated. This job was a chance to earn money for their own family while also bringing the gift of reading and books to their neighbors. While initially most people were suspicious of the librarians and their “free” books, they came to know and appreciate them over time and welcomed them into their homes and lives.
Regardless of age, environment or education, they all eagerly await the book woman’s visit with her convertible library.
Librarians and Scrapbookers
As a scrapbooker and a book lover, I found it particularly interesting that the librarians made scrapbooks from donated materials as well as recipes and other tidbits given to them by the people they served. In return for the books they were given (despite being only a loan rather than a gift), the women would give the librarians favorite recipes or quilt patterns as a token of gratitude. The librarians would combine the contributions from the women with articles and stories from tattered and worn magazines removed from circulation into a scrapbook, which was then added to the materials shared with the families served by these mobile libraries. One such scrapbook is now on display at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in New York. (Oh look – another place to add to my list of places to visit.)
Why do we love them?
The packhorse librarian initiative was a successful WPA program that gave “warm fuzzies” to anyone who heard about it. (It’s true – it gives me warm fuzzies too, even now, 83 years later.) It also appealed to people as a prime example of American toughness and patriotism. Despite the hardships and difficult, even treacherous, working conditions, the women of the Packhorse Library Project were dedicated to their cause of bringing literacy to all the people no matter what. That is one of the ideals we hold ourselves to as Americans – to persevere and succeed despite obstacles and hardship. In my eyes, these women were heroes.
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Smithsonian-includes great pictures from archives (Please take a look – it’s worth it!)
Atlas Obscura -also includes pictures, though most are the same
INSH – These guys made the video that brought this subject to my attention. (You watched the video, right?)
An excerpt from the book, Down Cut Shin Creek (to tide you over until you can check it out from the library)
A clip from a 1936 Kentucky newspaper about the Packhorse Library Project
Ancient Persian mail couriers offered dedication and inspiration
An article about Shelby Lee Adams who photographs people today in the deep mountains of Appalachia
Appelt, Kathi, and Jeanne Cannella. Schmitzer. Down Cut Shin Creek: the Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky. HarperCollins, 2001.
(This was a great book with lots of pictures, stories, and history of the Packhorse Librarians. It is out of publication now with only a couple used copies available at Amazon but hopefully you can find it at your local library. It is a must-read when researching this topic.)
Also if you’re looking for a picture book to read to your kids (or to yourself – I happen to love picture books!), you can look for That Book Woman by Heather Henson.
And if you’re looking for a novel, try this historical fiction romance, Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin. (I haven’t read it yet – I’ve been saving it as my reward for finally finishing the research and writing for this post.)