Pack Horse Librarians
October 31, 2010 1:01 PM   Subscribe

The Pack Horse Librarian (Photo Gallery) was a welcomed and much anticipated sight in the isolated and hard-to-reach mountains and hollers of Eastern Kentucky between 1935 and 1943. They brought books and magazines, retrieved already-read materials for delivery at another stop on the route, read to residents, took requests, and generally served homes, schools, villages, mining camps, and anywhere there were people who wanted to read.

Funded by the WPA and created by state librarians (Kentucky historically had high illiteracy rates and among the lowest library funding in the nation, but also had a tradition of traveling libraries), the idea of packhorse librarians spread through the South and West to other similarly hard-to-reach and widely populated areas that could not be well-served by a bookmobile (which the WPA was also funding in towns, cities, and less-isolated areas).

More on bookmobiles: A brief history is in the first part of this article, The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor, and there are wonderful images in this WPA Bookmobile pictures (google search).
posted by julen (17 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Wonderful post! We still need programs like these in the US. Support your public library any way you can.
posted by mareli at 1:21 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think I just heard something on the radio that some libraries were planning on putting up convenient kiosks similar to Redbox in their never-ending quest to get people to read.
posted by Bitter soylent at 1:23 PM on October 31, 2010

I just love the whole concept. Here are some from around the world:

Bibliomula in Venezuela

Biblioburro in Columbia*

Donkey Mobile Library in Ethiopia

my favourite
posted by The Lady is a designer at 2:15 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Very cool. I didn't grow up with a bookmobile, but the city I live in now has one, and it stops every other week for an hour and a half just around the corner from my house. My toddler and I trot over there religiously and he LOVES the bookmobile. (It's a TRUCK that you get to go INSIDE and it's full of BOOKS. It's like the toddler trifecta.)

At first I didn't really "get" it -- why wouldn't I just go to the library? -- but I am a huge convert. It's so fun to have the little mobile library come to my neighborhood and to be able to mosey over.

It needs more sci-fi, fewer cookbooks, though. Clearly the adult populations they serve LOOOOOOOOOVE cookbooks. And thrillers. But we do great with the board books and they have a good YA shelf.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:27 PM on October 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Despite its problems, and the ongoing shortage of materials, the Pack Horse Library Project was considered a rousing success story. But success sometimes carried with it other problems. For instance, one family complained that their son's new nightly reading habits meant they had to purchase more lamp oil. Another parent grew irate over the fact that he could not get his children to do their chores because all they wanted to do was sit and read. Still, the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks. Over 100,000 people participated in this service which provided a meaningful escape from their troubles.

That's so awesome. Thanks for this post - it's great.
posted by rtha at 3:45 PM on October 31, 2010

I love the way crazy-cool history I had no idea about keeps cropping up on this site. Thanks!
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:51 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Related post (although it doesn't appear below).
posted by unliteral at 4:31 PM on October 31, 2010

I can't seem to pull up the article, but there's a similar service in India called something like "book ladies", where librarians with limited print collections and smart phones travel to underserved rural areas on bikes to provide service to their patrons.

Anyway, great post!
posted by codacorolla at 5:56 PM on October 31, 2010

i grew up in a small town (village, actually) that was essentially 7 blocks long by 2 blocks wide. when i was a kid, the absolute highlight of the summers was the bookmobile. i always checked out the maximum allowable number of books, and there was no such thing as a late fee--i was ready for a new batch every few weeks when they swung back around. i don't remember when the love affair with the bookmobile ended, but decades later, sometime between then & now, i had a moment of clarity where i realized that libraries weren't just something i happened to love, they're one of the most valuable assets of post-agrarian society. big ups to the pack horse librarians.
posted by msconduct at 6:04 PM on October 31, 2010

Ooh, interesting to read.

Although I am flabbergasted to see that they don't actually have pack horses, what I was envisioning from the title. Each librarian is riding one horse in the pics, and the various texts (and the article) suggest (s)he was carrying only enough books to fit in the saddlebags, not very big saddlebags. It doesn't say, but I am guessing the saddlebags also had to carry essentials like food and also supplies for the horse (unless maybe each stop was within riding distance of their headquarters).

I wonder, did they make a lot of individual trips, then, not run rounds and then stop back by the library?
posted by galadriel at 8:45 PM on October 31, 2010

galadriel: " I wonder, did they make a lot of individual trips, then, not run rounds and then stop back by the library"

From my off-line reading (I've been reading a lot about the 1930s lately), it seems like they would do different circuits every day, but on a regular schedule. Even with donations, there were a limited number of resources, so they would start out with a few bags worth of material and swap out books and magazines as they went, refreshing their initial sets of books and magazines regularly to interject new content and try and fill requests for specific topics.

I meant to include that it was one of the few jobs that didn't specify a (usually male) gender, which might explain why there were so many more women than men doing the job; it was much harder for female heads of households to find WPA jobs, particularly ones that could be a little flexible. In Nick Taylor's American-Made: When FDR put the nation to work he described one woman who started out walking her routes until she could make enough to buy a horse (at a good price) from a neighbor. The WPA didn't supply anything but the books and a small salary, and a lot of the people who did the work generally didn't have more than 1 horse they could use for the job.
posted by julen at 9:47 PM on October 31, 2010

julen spoke.

Hey, thanks. Even more info! What an interesting slice of history.

Yeah, the links (this post and the "Previously" mentioned) made it pretty clear that each librarian could only afford one equid--if that! I'm not sure which of them mentioned the person whose equid died, and so she did her route on foot until she could afford another. Whew. "Pack horse librarian" conjured up, in my mind, a librarian riding a horse and leading a pack horse or mule, perhaps even a string. But after reading the articles, I see that my envisioning was waaaay off.

So did they set out from headquarters, make their daily run, and return to headquarters each day? Or did the packs have to include not just books, but also provisions for librarian and horse/mule? Or were they, perhaps, supported by the communities they visited, so they didn't need to carry food and fodder?
posted by galadriel at 9:35 AM on November 1, 2010

Reading to an Illiterate Customer. Har har. That's guy's so illiterate the newspapers on the wall are flipped backwards.
posted by marxchivist at 11:25 AM on November 1, 2010

Thanks for this. Looking through the images, I found this children's book about Pack Horse Librarians (though I have to say it sounds a bit rubbish).

I suspect mobile libraries in the UK will be vulnerable to cuts in the new climate, though I can only find one post-Spending Review article about this, relating to Hampshire's service.
posted by paduasoy at 4:29 PM on November 1, 2010

galadriel: "So did they set out from headquarters, make their daily run, and return to headquarters each day? Or did the packs have to include not just books, but also provisions for librarian and horse/mule? Or were they, perhaps, supported by the communities they visited, so they didn't need to carry food and fodder?"

Well, the woman who had to save to buy the horse said that some of the homes would offer her a meal when she delivered the books, and it made her feel so guilty that these folks - who were eking out an existence without the benefit of WPA salary - would share the best of what they had, but she couldn't turn them down either because it was so important to them to do it. Usually they'd pack a snack, though.

Because it was often a journey to the central library itself, my impression is that they'd pick up new materials/swap out ones that had been widely shared regularly, but not daily.
posted by julen at 7:11 PM on November 1, 2010

A related book, in case anyone would like to read more about adventuresome librarians in US history: Cultural Crusaders: Women Librarians in the American West, 1900-1917 by Joanne E. Passet (University of New Mexico Press, 1994). It should be easy-ish to get on interlibrary loan. Very readable, and funny in spots:

"A young woman who is not only a college graduate with library school training and experiences....[she] must be able to get along with Western people, ride and drive, as well as pack a horse, follow a trail, shoot straight, run an automobile, and be able to 'rough it' whenever necessary."--Mabel Wilkinson on the requirements for librarians interested in moving West to take a library job

(It tickles me to see that this book has been translated into Japanese!)
posted by gillyflower at 10:25 AM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love the "Reading to a Bed-Ridden Customer" what service.
posted by hodenjan at 9:27 PM on November 9, 2010

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