Throwback Thursday: Tales of Kentucky pack horse librarians and how they paved the way for bookmobiles

Thanks to the Smithsonian magazine and News 40 multimedia journalist Chris
Bratton for helping out with research on this week’s topic. Kentucky may be
stereotyped as a somewhat backward state when it comes to education and literacy,
but the fact remains that our Commonwealth has more bookmobiles than any other
state in the country, and has for over 30 years. But why?

This story begins during the Great Depression of the 1930s. President Roosevelt’s
New Deal policies to aid those in the worst poverty-stricken areas made it to
Appalachia and Kentucky. In 1930, over 30 percent of Kentuckians couldn’t read.
Part of the Works Progress Administration, the pack horse library initiative send
librarians into areas where transportation and paved roads hadn’t yet made it.
About 10 thousand square miles of eastern Kentucky was given access to new
reading material, during a time when just over 60 percent of Kentuckians had no
library access at all.

Books and pamphlets were supplied to the pack horse librarians from schools,
universities, Boy Scouts, women’s clubs, churches, and libraries from all over.
Librarians were assigned to set up a headquarters in the heart of every county,
usually a home, church, post office, or business willing to act as storage. The pack
horse librarians acted more like mail carriers, determined to work through wind, rain,
snow, or sleet. They traveled several days a week and created routes to return every
couple weeks with new material, carried in saddlebags, pillowcases, and anything else
available to them. These carriers rode upwards of 120 miles a week and made about $28
dollars a month – equal to $500 modern dollars a month. What a price for education.

And what a wilderness eastern Kentucky was and still is today. Pack horse librarians
traveled along Cut Shin Creek, Troublesome Creek, and Hell-for-Sartin, or “hell for
certain” without the Appalachian tongue. The program ran from 1935 to 1943,
carrying reading material to over 30 counties. By 1946, motorized bookmobiles
were on the move. Turning everything from old cars and mail vans to hearses into
bookmobile, Kentuckians are still very keen on improving their education. At last
count, there were over 600 bookmobiles in this state. Our own Warren County
Public Library in Bowling Green operates its own.