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Photos Published of Female Librarians on Horseback Delivering Books in the 1930s

Librarians are amazing.

In the 1930s, there was a big unemployment problem in the United States. Many people living in isolated communities had very little access to jobs or even a good education for their children. In Kentucky, they had isolated communities in the mountains which could only get their books and reading material from one source… librarians on horseback.

A group of “book women” on horseback in Hindman, Kentucky, 1940.

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These librarians would adventure through muddy creeks and snowy hills just to deliver literature to the people of these isolated areas. President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to figure out a way to resolve the Great Depression and get people working again. His Works Progress Administration created the Pack Horse Library Initiative to help Americans become more literate so that they’d have a better chance of finding employment.

A pack horse librarian at an isolated mountain house, carrying books in saddlebags and hickory baskets, year unknown.

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Packhorse librarians start down Greasy Creek to remote homes, date unknown.

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The horseback librarians were mostly made up of women and they were paid salaries by the Works Progress Administration. The rule was that libraries had to exist in the counties where books would be delivered. Many of the local schools contributed to this effort by donating literature, such as newspapers, magazines, and books.

Packhorse librarians cross a log bridge to reach home used as a distribution center for a mountain community, year unknown. 

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These adventurous women on horseback would ride as much as 120 miles within a given week, regardless of the terrain or weather conditions. Sometimes, they would have to finish their travels on foot if their destination was in a place too remote and tough for horses to go. These women had to be locally known to people too or else those living in the mountains would not trust them.

In 1943, the horseback book delivery program had ended because employment skyrocketed during World War II.

Children greet the “book woman,” 1940.

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“Sometimes the short way across is the hard way for the horse and rider but schedules have to be maintained if readers are not to be disappointed. Then, too, after highways are left, there is little choice of roads,” c. 1940.

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Book delivery to a remote home, 1940.

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A man reading to two small children, c. 1940

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The library in Stanton, Kentucky, 1941.

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Packing saddle bags with books, date unknown.

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A trunk full of donated magazines, c. 1940.

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Making a scrapbook, c. 1940.

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Front porch delivery, c. 1940.

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KENTUCKY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES – UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY LIBRARIES SPECIAL COLLECTIONS RESEARCH CENTER.