(photo courtesy of smithsonianmag.com)
The Great Depression of the 1930s was exceeding difficult for almost everyone in the United States. Jobs were few, and every penny was needed just to provide basic food for families. As the depression stretched on, people needed a distraction from the stress of daily living. They needed books.
In urban areas, people could visit their local library, and go home with something to read. But if you lived in a more remote area, like the mountains of Kentucky, you were out of luck. The solution: pack-horse libraries.
Portable libraries were actually in existence before the Great Depression. The Kentucky Federation Of Women’s Clubs ran traveling libraries from 1896 until the early 1930’s, when they ran out of money. In 1935, the federal government continued the idea. The Works Program Administration (WPA) hired healthy young women to go to mountain communities on horseback with packs of books, serving as portable libraries. It was a tough job, and paid only $28 a month. While the government paid the salaries of the librarians, the state of Kentucky had to come up with the books, and the workers had to provide their own transportation – either using their own horse or renting a horse. Books were donated by more affluent Kentuckians, and as word spread, by people in other states.
It wasn’t easy being a pack-horse librarian. You had to make your circuit at least twice a month, covering 100-120 miles. The mountain roads were difficult to navigate. They had to care for their horse, and their two large saddle-bags of books. What sort of reading material made it into those saddlebags? A lot of classic fiction (Mark Twain was a favorite), the Bible, magazines, recipe books, how-to books, and Sunday school booklets.
As books and magazines became worn out, they were not thrown away. Instead, the librarians would salvage good sections and pages, and glue them into scrapbooks, which went right back into the pack-bags. Even old donated Christmas cards were put to use as bookmarks.
The pack-horse librarians brought books to about 50,000 Kentucky families in 1936, and to 155 schools the next year. These tiny libraries provided much-needed reading material through the rest of the Great Depression. The project was discontinued in 1943, as the economy recovered and people went back to work. But the idea of tiny libraries lives on with bookmobiles in areas that do not have a traditional library.