The "book women" rode 100 to 120 miles a week, on their own horses or mules, no matter the weather or terrain.

By Meghan Overdeep
September 17, 2020
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In the depths of the Great Depression, groups of librarians known as the “book women” loaded up their horses with books and journeyed deep into the Kentucky mountains to deliver reading material to the state’s poorest, most-isolated communities.

Though long since forgotten, The Pack Horse Library initiative was one of the most unique aspects of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Implemented and managed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) between 1935 and 1943, the program was created to help lift America out of the Great Depression.

The Pack Horse Library
Credit: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection/Kentucky Digital Library
Pack Horse Library Women
Credit: Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection/Kentucky Digital Library

Even by Kentucky standards, one of hardest hit states, the situation was most dire in Appalachia. According to Smithsonian Magazine, food, education, and economic opportunity were nearly impossible to come by in the remote mountain towns, where, by 1933, unemployment had risen to 40 percent. The national government realized that reading and education were essential parts of the recovery of these communities.

The Pack Horse Library Project not only distributed books but also provided reading lessons. Sometimes the book women would even read aloud to groups and families.  

The book women rode 100 to 120 miles a week, on their own horses or mules, no matter the weather or terrain, earning $28 a month. By the end of 1938, there were 274 librarians riding out across 29 counties. By 1943, the project helped employ around 200 people and reached approximately 100,000 residents in rural Kentucky.

Funding for The Pack Horse Library Project dried up in 1943, the same year the economy rebounded thanks to WWII. While the brave women on horseback are only a memory, the idea of mobile book services was resurrected a decade later in the form of the bookmobile, which remain popular in the area even today.