Librarians on Horseback: Who Were They?

In the 1930s, everything was different. There was no technology, no on-demand services that were available at the push of a button. Imagine that you were living during this time in rural Kentucky. One way to pass the time is to read a book—a very common pastime back then, even more so than now. It was the Great Depression era, and resources of all kinds were scarce. You had to make do with what was available, necessities and entertainment alike.

What many do not realize is that there were several women who worked on horseback to bring the literature to the readers. They worked tirelessly, traveling back and forth around town to deliver these signature reads. The Pack Horse Librarians is what they became known as, and their story is amazing and profound to even fathom.

Setting the Scene

These “book women” travelled around rural Kentucky to deliver books to poverty-stricken areas. These individuals did not have any access to libraries at that time, and the pack horse librarians made it their mission to give them the same privileges. It was a treacherous task for the women, but they were not concerned for their own safety. They wanted to deliver these books in this makeshift mobile library.

These women were not paid more than the stationary, traditional librarians. If you think about it, the work they were doing did not even come close to the work that regular librarians were expected to do. This did not deter them—they still chose to take on this dangerous task because they were a fearless bunch.

The Process

When the book women were preparing to make a delivery, they would load up their saddlebags with all of the necessary literature. At times, they even used pillowcases and other linens to carry books because they wanted to bring more books. Anything that could be used to carry them would be implemented in a creative way. On average, they transported 100 books to these rural areas. Unbelievably, the distance they covered spanned up to 120 miles each week.

Thinking about this on its own sounds tough, but it did not end there. The book women had to endure freezing cold winters where rivers became frozen over with ice. They encountered obscure trails and inclines that were so steep even the horses could not handle them. In this case, the ladies would make the rest of their journey on foot, leaving their horses temporarily while carrying the books in their arms.

While we now know of their amazing intentions, not everybody in these rural areas felt the same way. Stepping into their shoes, these women were strangers approaching households with books. They were seen as suspicious women at times. This provided them with yet another challenge—they had to win over all of the people that they worked so hard to encounter.

To do so, they often quoted verses from the Bible. While using these well-known sentiments as a gesture of peace, they also hoped to promote more literacy because they figured that even the most illiterate individuals had heard of these verses at least a couple times before. This definitely won people over. The rural townsfolk started to see the librarians as local heroes.

After some time, people began waiting for them with anticipation. They wanted these librarians to come and deliver their rounds. They brought classic works by Mark Twain and even illustrated books for those who were more visual learners. Both adults and children began to look forward to the time when the traveling librarians would arrive with their goodies.

Why the Initiative was Monumental

If you think about something like this happening today, it would be next to impossible. Nowadays, people want things to happen instantly and easily. If a task takes too much effort, you can almost guarantee that an individual would much rather seek out an alternative option than go forth with the original plan. This is why the book women created something that is so unique and monumental. Their actions have gone down in history, and people all around the world will remember them for their almost heroic ways.

This movement lasted for an entire decade, making it a very prominent part of Kentucky history that many who were born and raised there do not even know about. Through the power of literature and the technology that is present today, the book women can live on, and their courage will remain just as powerful as ever. It is through their kindness that so many people learned how to read and were kept occupied during such a difficult time in the world.

The next time that you visit a library or pick up a book, you can think about this little piece of history that might just change the way that you see reading and the privilege of having access to plenty of books to read. While there were plenty of other people around the world who have tried to pull off similar movements, only the book women succeeded in such a way that they are still being talked about to this day.

Image Credit Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons