After the stock market crashed in 1929 the United States was plunged into The Great Depression. It thrust much of the country into unemployment and poverty. To combat this President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide job opportunities. Within this program FDR added the Pack Horse Library Project to bring literacy to the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. The hope was that literacy would increase employability among the people there.
The Pack Horse Libraries were created in 1934 under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Resources Administration (FERA) and was taken over by the WPA in 1935. Within a year there were eight pack horse libraries. Librarians, called book women or book ladies, were hired at a rate of $28 a month to deliver books to homes and schools riding on horses or mules. Most of the people involved in the program were women and many of them were the only wage-earners in their households. The women had to provide their own steed owned by their families, though some were leased from local farmers.
The routes that these horses traveled were often quite treacherous because of the remoteness of the communities they served. Hillsides of loose rock, cliffs, and deep water were all among the issues that they faced. One rider admitted that sometimes her feet froze to the stirrups Much more of the horse had to be mighty cold as well. Each horse or mule traveled an average of nearly 5,000 miles each month while carrying their rider most of the time and 100 books at a time.
Most of the books circulated between communities and children would run to meet the horse and rider, eager for something new to read. The project also provided reading lessons and sometimes the book carriers would read aloud to families. Eventually there were 30 Pack Horse Libraries serving around 100,000 people.
"Nan Milan, who carried books in an eight-mile radius from the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school for mountain children, joked that the horses she rode had shorter legs on one side than the other so that they wouldn’t slide off of the steep mountain paths." -Smithsonian Magazine
The Pack Horse Libraries were defunded in 1943 when FDR ended the WPA. World War II had put much of the country to work and horses and mules were needed for the war effort. In the 1950s a new program was started and horses were replaced with bookmobiles now that roads created by the WPA made travel easier..
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