Step back in time and observe a little known tidbit of history at the Moneta/SML Library in March. This month’s featured exhibit in the MOarts Gallery is an exhibit of photos taken during the Depression of Packhorse Librarians. What was a Packhorse Librarian? Packhorse Librarians were a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project in Kentucky. From 1935 to 1943, the program enabled 1,000 women to support themselves and their families by delivering reading material to 1.5 million rural Kentuckians.
Packhorse Librarians loaded books, magazines, pamphlets, and scrapbooks into saddlebags, drawstring bags, suitcases, and even pillowcases and delivered them via horse or mule to the mountain people of Kentucky. These brave women forded creeks as there were few bridges and followed game trails as there were few roads. The Book Women rode their routes in fair weather and foul, covering 18 to 20 miles a day or 50 to 80 miles each week. They carried news, messages, and letters as well as books. If someone they visited had no one to read to him or her, the book woman took time to read aloud to the patron. These tough, dedicated, and determined women worked hard to take books to people who had never had access to them before.
And it was work. The WPA paid the librarians’ salaries, to the tune of $28.00 per month. However, the book centers and books were donated to the program. That meant that the books were already used when the program received them. That initial use plus the hard trek to and from houses and the continued use of the materials meant that the books and magazines weren’t in the best of shape. The packhorse librarians repaired them the best they could at weekly meetings. Then, when the book or magazine was at the end of its original life, the librarians repurposed it as scrapbooks that continued to circulate. The patrons of the packhorse librarians were eager for reading material of any kind, including homemade scrapbooks.
The packhorse librarians even created a scrapbook of their own work. Photos were taken of the librarians going about their daily tasks, which included fording creeks and blazing trails as well as maintaining book collections. Then those photos were compiled in a book that has been digitally preserved. Come to the library and see the photos from that book as well as others. See what these amazing women did and imagine their experiences.
This exhibit is part of the Bedford Public Library System’s Winter Read program during which we encourage the community to read and discuss books on a particular topic. This year’s adult book is The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. It is the fictional story of a book woman named Cussy Carter. Books for younger ages are as follows: young adults: The Miner’s Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas; children: Ghost Girl by Delia Ray; children’s nonfiction: Down Cut Shin Creek: the Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer; and young children: That Book Woman by Heather Henson. Check out these books for more information on Packhorse Librarians and living in the Appalachians during the Depression.
More information can also be found in the article, “Yonder Comes the Bookwoman,” in the December 2019 issue of Blue Ridge Country; the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (kdla.ky.gov); and the University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center (https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/?q=packhorse&per_page=20). Special thanks are given to the KDLA and the UKY for permission to use the photos in this exhibit, and to the Friends of the Moneta/SML Library for sponsoring it.