Packhorse Librarians

Librarians have always been my heroes. They preserve and impart knowledge and literacy. They inspire curiosity. At a time when “intellectual” seems to have become a dirty word, they are keepers of the flame. Call me a geek if you want to. I think librarians rock.

Recently, I was thrilled to discover something about the history of librarians that I never knew. During the Great Depression, in the rugged and remote Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the Works Progress Administration funded the Pack Horse Library Project, and the vast majority of librarians involved in it were women.

These women would ride an average of 120 miles a week, two weeks out of every month, in the rain and snow, through the mud, along cliffs, and up icy creeks, to bring books to people who otherwise would not have access to them. They promoted literacy and education, and improved people’s chances for employment. They’d often read to families themselves. These women risked their very lives to spread knowledge. Not only did they have to tackle rough terrain and inclement weather, but they also had to gain the trust of communities that generally viewed outsiders as highly suspect. I can’t imagine a more noble pursuit.

Their funds were quite limited, so they also had to ask for book donations, and they got creative in other ways as well. They made Christmas cards into bookmarks, and license plates into book ends. They also made books of their own. They created recipe books and quilt pattern books from information gleaned from the community. They did their best to get to know their patrons and provide them with books that would spark their interest.

I’d like to imagine that if I were alive in that time and that place that I’d have been a Packhorse Librarian; a bringer of information, a messenger for truth and art and literature. It was a hard life, no doubt. But I bet at the end of the day, they took pride in this honest work. That makes life worthwhile.

Now those same communities are served by bookmobiles. This, too, is noble. I hope the librarians in those vans, with their dry feet and their warm hands, take a moment each day to think about those intrepid women who paved the way for them. And I hope they keep up the good work, because, I’ll say it again, librarians rock.


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