Book Women—The Depression’s Book Mobile

As a contemporary romance author, my research is different from historical authors. For the third book in my Wishing, Texas Series, To Tame A Texas Cowboy, my research topics included seizure treatment/causes, service dogs and veterinarian office software. As a result, I don’t often come across cool historical tidbits to share with you the way Petticoats and Pistols historical authors often do. But recently, I came across a Facebook post about librarians on horseback. Considering my love of books and horses, I couldn’t resist learning more.

The Pack Horse Library program was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during The Depression. In 1930’s Kentucky, the unemployment rate was almost forty percent and around thirty percent of the state’s population was illiterate. The hope was The Pack Horse Library program would decrease both these statistics. In addition to these issues, the ten thousand square foot area of eastern Kentucky this program served lagged behind other areas in the state in terms of electricity and highways. Scarcity of food, education and few economic options compounded the problems.

Getting the program’s employees to these rugged, rural areas of The Appalachian Mountains where people with the greatest need lived proved challenging, too. Because of the terrain, horses were chosen as the mode of transportation. However, the most astounding aspect of the program was that most of the employees of The Pack Horse Library were women! Folks simply referred to them as “Book Women.”

After loading donated books, magazines and newspapers, these librarians set out on their own mules or horses and headed into the mountains. Not an easy task, even when the weather cooperated. But imagine how difficult and treacherous the trip had to be in snowy or rainy conditions. Often the terrain became so rugged or remote, even horses couldn’t travel, forcing the librarians to continue on foot, carrying the books! No matter how cold or bad the weather, these librarians persisted, covering one hundred to one hundred twenty miles a week. One librarian had to complete her eighteen-mile route on foot after her mule died. Now that’s dedication!

By 1936, these devoted librarians serviced over fifty-thousand families and one-hundred-fifty-five schools. But these women did more than provide books. They acted as a connection between these rural Kentucky communities and world. They tried to fill book requests, read to people who couldn’t read themselves, and fostered a sense of local pride. And all for a salary of twenty-eight dollars a month.

All photos from atlasobsura.com

The Pack Horse Library program ended in 1943 along with the WPA. War had pulled the country out of The Depression, but these strong, determined librarians had left their mark. They made a difference.

To be entered for the drawing to win a copy of Colorado Rescue, a looking sharp wine glass and the bracelet pictured, tell me what you love about libraries or share your favorite memory involving a library.

Julie Benson
Julie Benson has written five novels for Harlequin American, and her Wishing, Texas series is available from Tule Publishing. Now that her three sons have left the nest in Dallas, when she isn't writing, Julie spends her time working on home improvement projects, rescuing dogs, and visiting Texas wineries with her husband. Visit her at www.juliebenson.net.
Updated: April 30, 2019 — 7:40 pm

42 Comments

  1. Libraries smell unique. Like history might smell. You can travel anywhere, anytime in a library. You can meet those that shaped the world, brought us comfort, freedom, love, salvation, education, and so much more. And Book boyfriends. There is no limit with books. My Mom took me to the library. That was way before electronics. The feel and smell of books is nostalgic with ebooks.

    1. Jerri, your comment makes me think of Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer! When his girlfriend wanted to get him to research download his books and research on the computer, he said the smell bothered him. He said the smell bothered him. She said computers didn’t smell. He said and books do. He loved the smell of books. 🙂 I remember back in the day before the Internet and how much I appreciated reference librarians!

  2. I love libraries. Ranch one is different. I travel a great deal for my job and I stop in and visit libraries on my travels. I love seeing how each is designed differently and most have a free to a good home or a sale on books. I have found many treasured authors this way. Libraries also let me roam and find new authors I would not find on my own. Great post I had no idea about these Pack Horse Libraries!

    1. Tonya, what a great idea–to visit libraries when you travel! I agree that each library has it’s own personality and vibe.

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    I must share that I am a Texan but my family moved a lot. I lived in a tiny Western Kentucky town from the summer I was four until the summer after fourth grade when we moved backed to Texas. When I started back to school in Texas, boy oh boy was I behind compared to Texas students. I was always the youngest in my class and stuggled academically throughout my school years. I did okay but I just struggled to keep A’s and B’s. I guess my point being isthat this I completely understand Kentucky’s need for this book program and I’m sure it ended way too soon. I’m a virtually newbie to the reading world. I just started reading in November 2016 after not reading a book in decades and rarely reading in my life. I’m now a book addict and I’m on my 232nd book! I’ve yet to utilize libraries in the area because I have a virtual library in my home now from used books I collected and books friends have sent me. I do drop by libraries to check out their for sale book sections and buy used books and audiobooks but I’ve just begun to do that. Awesome blog, thanks for sharing! I’m going to share it on my facebook page to see if my Kentucky friends know about this little tidbit of their history.

    1. Stephanie, I don’t think we realize how hard it is, and always has been, for some of the rural areas of our country. In the past, kids in these rural areas were pulled out of school if they were needed to work the farm. Or, they would be periodically pulled from class during planting, harvesting, calfing seasons. That meant when they came back, they discovered they’d missed out on a lot. For that reason, many farmers kids gave up on school. Good for you for sticking with school despite your struggles. It’s a testament to your ability to persevere.

  4. Our Library is my second home.Just being around so many books surrounds me with thoughts of traveling into any era, learning new cultures etc. I agree that there is a distinct smell libraries have. Our library has a front wall of glass and sitting in a cozy chair with the sun shining behind and around me is awesome. 🙂

    1. Carol, your library sounds wonderful! Now, if that glass wall looks out onto a pretty landscaped area with flowers, it would be perfect! It’s been so rainy here lately, and when it isn’t raining the skies are gray. We desperately need sunshine! Not having it is making us all a little cranky!

  5. It’s my second home too. Check out books, DVD’s and printing off things is what I do most at our libraries here. There is also a book mobile that parks in area’s were the library is too far to walk also a couple of other towns it also visits on a bi monthly basis.

    1. Kim, I think book mobiles have been a great addition. About three years after the Pack Horse Library program ended motorized book mobiles took over, doing what the Book Women had. Today they still work to get books to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. When I worked at a disadvantaged elementary school, I realized how much we take people having access to books. For some kids, the only books they had access to were from the school library.

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    I used to take my Girl Scouts to the library all the time. First the librarian would give them talks, then they would. Once we even had a read a thon and the girls gave away book collected from book stores. I hope they still go.

    1. Debra, your comment reminds me of doing the same with my boys in Cub Scouts! I loved taking my kids to story hour during the summer. I remember the library having a program where they showed movies. The boys and I had so much fun going to those, and what a great way to spend an afternoon when it was 110 degrees outside! Thanks for bringing a smile to my face with your comment.

  7. I used to love for the book mobile to come to our school especially during the summer months it was walking distance from our house I always felt like a kid in a candy store when I walked onto that big red bus

    1. Glenda, book mobiles were cool to go into as a kid. I remember having the same reaction, marveling at how they modified the inside to hold all those books. There’s something about holding a book in my hands. My hubby loves to read on his phone. Me, I download books and then never read them. I have to hold the book and smell the paper. I guess I’m a dinosaur. 🙂 But then, I can’t read on my phone in the tub and that’s still my favorite place to read. It started when it was the once place I could go where the boys wouldn’t follow me.

  8. I think these librarians were literary heroes. I always liked the quiet calmness of a library when I was younger. It was a place I could escape to when things got tough. It always help reset my mood and attitude. I was a secret nerd hidden behind a tough girl exterior. Most people didn’t know about my love for reading or science.

    1. Janine, thanks for sharing with us today! Your comment has my head spinning for a character–a tough tomboy who secretly escapes to the library when life gets tough. Add to that she loves reading and science…oooh! I might have to use this in a character’s backstory some day! Thanks for sharing your secret!

      1. Use it as you please. I would be honored. I was very secretive back then.

  9. I love libraries and the one we have here still has the book mobile that come around to different places. I know my mother in law uses it a lot. The book mobile really takes care of the elderly here they even take books to their homes. My son is the IT at our local library so I am very glad it is around.

    1. I always think of how book mobiles help kids, and I tend to forget how crucial they are to the elderly. It, too, is a social event for them. They can talk to the traveling librarian and develop a relationship. Plus, they get books that can transport them anywhere they want to go.

  10. I love libraries because you ca get the latest Hardcovers of books before the paperbacks come out.

    1. Estella, I love getting hardback books too! My problem is I don’t get to the library fast enough, though, and then I’m way down on the list!

  11. Libraries hold treasures! Libraries hold a wealth of knowledge! I love libraries!!!

    1. Melanie, so many people don’t realize what great places libraries are and how many great programs they have! They were my salvation when my boys were young because the programs were free.

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    Thank you for sharing a part of our Kentucky history! I am a retired librarian from Kentucky and for the first 2 years I was our bookmobile librarian. No, I didn’t carry books on a pack horse but I traveled throughout our county and delivered books. During the summer I also shared the Summer Reading Program with children that weren’t able to attend the programs at the library. Our bookmobile still serves our county residents and it goes to schools and preschools also! And personally, I am an avid reader and a big fan of libraries!

    1. Connie, so you’re one of our heroines! Thank you for all you do to bring books to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them! And a even bigger thank you for helping raise the next generation of readers!

  13. Welcome Julie. This is so cool. I love little tidbits like this. Growing up I never went to a library. Living in the dessert, everything was a distance. When I got married I checked out our local library. Ohhhh what a wealth of books. I couldnt get enough. I read at night in the same room that my engineering husband would build his own computer. When we started having children, I made them a book bag and we visited the library every two weeks. This went on until the youngest was ready to start high school. Then for her it wasnt such a hot deal anymore. But at the ages of 31 and 33 they are still both avid readers. I still like the library. Many times my husband and I will just go to the library for a date night. Nice and quiet with comfy chairs and during the winter fireplaces.

    1. Lori, you have such wonderful memories and stories about visiting libraries. I love that you made book bags for your children to take with them when you visited the library. I wish I’d thought of that idea when my boys were little! Thank you for sharing with us.

  14. Libraries have been an escape for me all of my life. I have always been a library patron since I was very young and still enjoy visiting my local library every week. This resource is invaluable and precious.

    1. Anne, I too have always thought of libraries as special places and librarians as extra special people. What a great job, talking about books all day! Thank you for stopping by to chat today.

  15. I am an avid reader and could not live without my library. It provides me with solace, and books and so much more. I now take my grandchildren to the library and they have a love of reading as i did when I was their age.

    1. Ruth, how wonderful that you’re sharing your love of libraries with your grandchildren! What a fantastic grandma!

  16. Libraries give me hope, and are a haven for me. I read a great deal and appreciate being a member of a library. I feel so relaxed when I drop into a library and find a treasure. It makes my life complete.

    1. Laini, thank you for stopping by today. I feel the same way when I’m at the library. I especially love when I find a new author. Libraries are a great way to try reading someone new.

  17. Libraries are precious repositories and their impressive buildings, and collections are vital to generations. We appreciate and continue to value this necessary contribution to our education. Without libraries civilization would disappear. I love going to the library and will continue to do so forever.

    1. Sharon, you are so right. Libraries contain so much of our history. I love how each one has a different look and a different vibe. I also love the older ones for their amazing architecture. Thank you for stopping by today to chat.

  18. I love the amount of things which can be borrowed from a library. In high school, it was cool to borrow LPs. As a mother, I could borrow toys and games, but now, our public library carries bicycles and fishing tackle, another library offers art. So many things. Plus, during inclement weather days–heat or cold-related–they are havens for those in need as a safe place to hang out. Our libraries are a great community resource. Wish our politicians appreciated that.

    1. Denise, I love that your library carries bicycles, fishing tackle, and art! I had no idea some libraries loaned out such items. Thanks for letting me in on that secret. I wonder what my library loans out that I don’t know about.

  19. I enjoy walking to my library. The staff is excellent and friendly. The atmosphere is so peaceful. It’s my happy place.

    1. Caryl, how wonderful that your library is close enough for you to walk there. Sadly, our weather is already getting too warm for me to walk to mine. I’ll have to wait until fall.

  20. My favorite memory was taking my children when they were young. My husband was unemployed at the time and I was a stay at home mom. Our kids could enjoy the books and they had a reading program that they could earn a free personal pizza if they read 10 books. The kids and I would sit down and read book after book and do a book report then get their pizza. They still talk about how special it was to go on an adventure through reading the book and then getting their very own pizza they didn’t have to share. I still love our local library.

    1. Vicki, what a special story. I have similar memories with my children, but we didn’t get to earn a personal pizza! My kids would’ve loved that because they fought over sharing almost everything. And what a gift that program was when your husband was unemployed. We’ve been in that position, too, and something like your library’s program can make a huge difference in a family’s life. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  21. So many wonderful stories about library experiences, thank you everyone. Reading everyones comments made me think about my library experiences.

    When we were kids the only library we went to was at school. In sixth grade we were in a brand new school building and I got to help set up the library. I unpacked boxes of books stamping each book with the school name on the inside cover and shelving it. I think I spent as much time reading as I did unpacking.

    When our kids were little the regional library had a mail order service. A newsprint catalog would come with pictures of book covers and a short blurb about the book. All genres of books were represented and the kids would study it like it was the”Wish Book”. They each got to choose two books and after sending in the postcard order blank wait for the books to come in the mail, complete with return postage. Eventually that service became too expensive and was no longer offered.

    Our local library is a Carnegie Library built in 1907. It is one of the few in the country that has been continuously used as a library. We love it.

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