In the years after the Great Depression, President Roosevelt enacted The New Deal to help get people back on their feet. This allowed for some truly creative projects to spring up, and one of them was the Pack Horse Library Project of Eastern Kentucky.
The people of the Eastern Kentucky mountains had been hit hard by the Depression, and many of them had little connection to the outside world. This project brought in librarians from around the state and charged them with establishing routine library services in the remotest of towns. Though many were skeptical of the program at first, demand for books and magazines could barely keep up with demand; further, the librarians also brought news, comfort, and contact to a struggling people.
Here we see a full outfit of the horseback librarians in one town. They often began their day by loading up books before dawn and would return just before dusk. They were paid $28 a month and worked in both winter and summer.
Four librarians prepare to head off for a day's work. Their jobs were much more pleasant in the summer months, of course! Photo: Kentucky Digital Library
At the height of the program, there was such a demand for books that many local organizations were called on to contribute. The Kentucky PTA even held a "Penny Fund" initiative which asked every member to contribute one penny toward the purchase of new books.
Pack Horse Librarians start down Greasy Creek to remote homes of mountaineers anxious for books. Photo: Kentucky Digital Library
This photo from October 15, 1936 from the WPA shows one of the librarians delivering books and magazines in rural Owsley County. The notes from the WPA state that in the previous month, the four riders traveled 564 miles throughout the county.
By the early 1940s, the program had put together 30 libraries that reached out to nearly 100,000 Eastern Kentucky residents.
One of the librarians stopping by a remote cabin in 1940. Many credit this program as being a key source of raising the level of interest in education and the outside world in Eastern Kentucky. One can easily imagine how many youngsters this program must have motivated!
In these remote areas, those fortunate enough to attend school went to one-room schoolhouses that often had few materials. As such, the riders in this program would make a point to drop off any extras to the schoolhouses themselves.
The program ultimately came to an end in 1943 after it lost funding, but for those eight years, it was considered a Godsend to the thousands of people it served. Luckily the end of the program came in concert with the development of many new roads in the area. This paved the way - literally - for the emergence of the more standard bookmobiles that would become popular in the 1950s.
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