Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles

The Great Depression plunged the nation into poverty, and Kentucky became a poor state made even poorer. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) developed a project to distribute reading material to the people who lived in eastern Kentucky. In 1930, up to 31% of the residents couldn’t read. They wanted to learn, and workers saw the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape. The problem was how to get books into the remote region. That’s when the WPA sponsored a packhorse library to get books to the people by horseback. “Libraries” were housed in any facility that stepped up to help, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers, who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They road out twice a month, with each route covering 100-120 miles a week. They earned $28 a month, about $730 a month today. The books and magazines they carried usually came from outside donations. The Pack Horse Library ended in 1943 after Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of the WPA. The new war effort was putting people back to work, so WPA projects — including the Packhorse Library — tapered off. That marked the end of horse-delivered books in Kentucky, but by 1946, motorized bookmobiles were on the move.