Originally published in the Chillicothe Gazette, March 28, 2021
By Sydney Newsome
Waking up before the crack of dawn to mount my horse with a saddlebag of books and magazines at my side to navigate the treacherous Appalachians isn’t on my list of Top 10 Ways to Start My Day. Doing this rain, shine, sleet, or snow doesn’t cut it, either. However, it’s often crossed my mind that if it weren’t for those who did just that, it’s hard to say if I’d even have a workplace to go to (by Honda, not hackney).
During the Great Depression when around one-third of Americans no longer had reasonable access to public library materials, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) devised the Pack Horse Library Project. The librarians hired were mainly women—as the position was a “seemly” job for ladies—and pay was $28 a month. Their job was to get materials to the people deep in the Kentucky mountains by horseback or mule, but what they achieved in the long run wouldn’t fit into any job description.
So, what’d they do? Long story short, they’d pick up the readin’ books and magazines at a library center and travel 18-20 miles a day by horse (or on foot) to distribute them. The patrons were often homebound, families deep in the mountains, and even small schools. Of course, the interaction didn’t end when the librarians handed off the books. It was often expected of them to stick around and read to the patrons who couldn’t, or school kids who were just excited to see the “book woman.”
All materials had been donated to the centers and had seen better days, but during the depression everything was sacred, especially in a place that had so little. Every book, magazine, recipe, and sewing pattern was precious, so the book women preserved them in scrapbooks to prolong their life and get them back in the hands of patrons who needed them. In 1940, there were over 2,000 circulating scrapbooks.
It wasn’t just Kentuckians getting the special delivery treatment. Librarians adapted to their environment across America, traveling by flatboat in Louisiana’s marshes or loading up the bookmobile and driving around Washington State. It’s easy to see how the packhorse librarian advanced the general education of the people of Appalachia. They taught children to read, who in turn taught their parents. They provided hope to the hopeless, giving people glimpses of the world outside the mountains. With their scrapbooks, they even unintentionally became archivists of their culture that otherwise could easily have been forgotten.
As women’s history month wraps up once more, keep in mind that these women were pillars of literacy and resources that their communities could count upon, come “hell or high water”. They recognized a need, acted upon it, and wore whatever hat was necessary to get the job done.
It begs the question, where would modern-day Appalachia be without them? I am grateful that we don’t know the answer.
Sydney Newsome is a clerk at the Howard S. Young (Frankfort) Branch Library. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University.