Librarians on Horseback & The New Deal: A Fascinating History

It’s one of the staples of a high school history education, and one of the most widely known pieces of reform in America’s history—Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ plan. Roosevelt’s vision included a host of public works projects, public reforms, and regulations in an attempt to stabilize the United States economy as a response to the Great Depression. The creation of basic programs—roads, Social Security, Wall Street reform, aid for farmers—are all familiar to the most Americans. However, one part of Roosevelt’s plan that was not as widely known is also perhaps its most interesting of all: the Pack Horse Librarians.

Armed with heavy, book-filled saddlebags, Pack Horse Librarians were on a quiet yet powerful mission. These librarians and their horses endured inclement weather and mountainous terrain to deliver reading materials to the most socially isolated of Americans at the time. The Smithsonian estimates that in 1933, less than 30 percent of Kentucky farmers could read (all figures stated in this article are from Eliza McGraw’s  June 21, 2017 article on pack horse librarians, located on the Smithsonian’s web site here).

A pack horse librarian. This photo is from the Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digiital Library. To see this and additional photos related to pack horse librarians, visit Eliza McGraw’s article at the Smithsonian site here.

Roosevelt set up a plan to help bolster literacy rates in the most remote areas of Kentucky. While the program helped to increase access to informal education, it also served to employ women. The majority of Pack Horse Librarians were women, and riding for the program helped them gain financial independence and a valued place in the workforce. They made a modest salary—around modern $500 a week—for their efforts. Some were retired schoolteachers with a heart for helping children; others were single (or married!) and adventurous women wanting to do more than their domestic duties. Whatever their reasons for joining the Pack Horse Librarians, each woman had a lasting and profound impact upon literacy rates, as well a demonstration that women could be viewed as strong, rugged individuals in the work force.

Kentucky farmers and their families enjoyed a wide variety of books; their favorites included works by Mark Twain, and the classic Robinson Crusoe. Since so many adults could not read, they relied on their children to read the stories aloud for them. The librarians were also careful to provide literature with many illustrations. The children in turn helped to teach their parents to read, using the short sentences and detailed pictures in the reading material. This proved to be a useful tool in increasing reading skills in adults who had no access to formal education. Once these adults had basic knowledge of reading, they could transition to more advanced materials, such as (somewhat) recent news and current magazines. Slowly but surely, Kentuckians in remote areas were beginning to expand their world view, inform themselves, and began to learn about new advancements in farming and homestead functions.

The Librarians were well-received after Kentuckians began to trust them and eagerly await their monthly visits with new books. However, when the program first began, it was received with apprehension. The farmers had their doubts about strangers riding in on horses, giving their children materials that they could not read themselves. The Smithsonian reports that sometimes farmers would request that Librarians read passages from the Bible to prove themselves and their literature. Of course, the Librarians always had a large stock of Bibles, which helped bolster their credibility among the faith-firm Kentucky farmers.

While passing out Bibles and carrying picture books seems like an easy task, it was far from luxurious, or even comfortable. When Librarians mounted atop mules and horses loaded their packs down with library books, they set out on journeys that were frequently 100 to 120 miles a week. They followed set routes: the 10,000 square foot region had several trails that led to them; however, none were particularly easy or clear routes. Some reports from the era state that a Librarian once hiked over nine miles in the snow when her mule died en route. Besides being easy to get lost on, most trails were over unforgiving terrain and in harsh weather conditions. With names like “Cut Shin Creek,” the routes proved to test the wills of the Librarians and their mounts.

By 1936, the program was running smoothly and effectively, and the librarians were serving over 50,000 families. Without these Pack Horse Librarians, the majority of these families would have no other access to literature and no chance at reaping the benefits of literacy in the emerging economy.

The program was kept alive through the decade, but eventually tapered off by 1943. By that time, motorized ‘bookmobiles’ were already gaining traction, however, so those who had enjoyed the benefits of the Pack Horse Library had even greater access to their beloved books. These Pack Horse Librarians brought more than just reading materials and conversation to the farming families of the country—they brought the knowledge of a wider, more accessible world.