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The Packhorse Librarians

Anna Sochocky, Equi-Libris

The state of New Mexico where I live shut down for a second time due to a life-threatening rise in COVID cases. I am fortunate because my barn is considered an essential service. Unfortunately, my local library is not in the same category.

Shortage of books in my house is not an issue, but not visiting my library threw a wrench into my reading habits and led me to revisit an article I wrote about the packhorse librarians of 1930s Kentucky.

The following is an excerpt from my article posted on, and reminded me how all of us can take flight between the pages of a good book!

Boots froze in stirrup irons. Horses slithered down muddy mountain slopes and navigated icy rivers. Packhorse librarians were required to deliver their literary loads year-round in any weather. If their destination was too remote to reach on horseback or their animal died, riders walked their route. Directions to family houses scribbled on bits of paper or verbal instructions replete with references to topographical signposts, served as a map to navigate an assigned delivery location.

Into the crooks and corners of Appalachia, these women rode with the sole purpose of delivering books and magazines to families living in shacks or abandoned miner camps or to schoolhouses the size of closets.

The Great Depression cast aside jobs and livelihoods. Men abandoned wives and children. Babies died from malnutrition. Families lost farms and houses owned for generations dating back to the Revolutionary War. In good times, the state of Kentucky ranked one of the poorest in the nation, but during the Great Depression unemployment soared to a record forty percent of working-age adults.

Closure of half the region’s mines by 1933 and the flooding of the Ohio River drove the final nails into any hope of recovery. Unpaved gravel roads only accessible on foot or by horseback severed thousands of Kentucky residents from not only the outside world but, in many cases, their closest neighbors as well.

Unemployment shielded an insidious problem, too. An illiteracy rate ranging from nineteen to thirty-one percent coupled with isolated geography and a local culture that was wary of the outside world threatened any economic advancement that Eastern Kentucky residents that might benefit from in the future.

Established in 1935, the Pack Horse Library Project, a component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) sought to broaden literacy in homes and schools and put people back to work. One of the New Deal’s most creative initiatives, the Pack Horse Librarian Project enlisted unemployed Appalachian women to distribute books and magazines to nearly every resident living in a 10,000 square mile region of rural Eastern Kentucky.

Sixty-three percent of Kentucky’s residents did not have access to a public library at the beginning of the Great Depression. Mountain schools rarely had libraries, meaning that many students living in rural areas had never checked out a book. A visit from a packhorse librarian unlocked the futures of families in a way that coal production never could.

A visit from a ‘book woman’ offered comfort to the infirm whether from injury or age. Many read to their patrons or taught family members to read. Carriers also brought news from other family members, and even in some cases fetched a doctor to tend to an ailing person.

A precursor to the bookmobile not to be introduced to the rural Kentucky area until the 1950s, the packhorse librarians’ willingness to take flight in the saddle allowed thousands to do the same between the covers of a book.

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