National Library Week: Librarians on Horseback


In some places the terrain is so awful that people can’t really go to the library. So today, and in times past, the library has often come on horseback. Today, we’re looking at two such library services.

The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky


In Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, where the coal mines were, people often lived in places barely accessible by any means but walking. An area of grinding, hard lives and intense poverty, people often had no jobs to go to in the 1930s while the Depression raged. The WPA, the great public works program of the Roosevelt years, funded traveling libraries in many areas. In Eastern Kentucky, the lady librarians visited their patrons on pack horses.

Though a great many people in that region had never been to school and couldn’t read, they still loved getting books and magazines with lots of photos and illustrations to lighten their days. Schools in the area were lucky to have books at all, so the “book lady” brought reference books for lessons as well as books for the children to read.

The ladies’ days were long and dangerous but the rewards were immense. Because this was before the modern welfare system, people were often suspicious of “charity” like the WPA. Many folks insisted on giving the librarian something so that it was an equal exchange. Old family recipes and family quilt patterns were among some of the “gifts” given to the librarians. What a sweet legacy.

This has to be one of the most civic-minded of all WPA programs. For it brought hope, encouragement, education and pleasure to an area starved for just about every human need.

I liked, too, that the book gives credit to Lorena Hickock, whose relationship with crusading First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the subject of another book I recently reviewed–Loving Eleanor. And,  I found this book while looking for another book by its author, Kathi Appelt, when I did my Nature Women post last month for Women’s History Month. She also wrote Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers  a book I love.

What saddens me is that this is a such an amazing book to use in a Kentucky state history in elementary school, but due to Common Core it likely isn’t being used. Too bad. There are surely still elderly people in the area that the children could interview for oral history on their memories of this program. Losing local control of curriculum has cost our children a lot of great lessons.

I’m buying myself a copy of Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky to share some day with my future grandchildren who will likely be familiar enough with the area to enjoy it.


Photo source: Putu Sayoga via New York Times LENS blog

This morning, an item from one of the New York Times’ blogs was in my Facebook feed and instantly caught my eye:

A Quixotic Mission: Indonesia’s Library on Horseback

What difference can one person make? A world of difference! Ridwan Sururi, and his horse, bring books to the residents of Central Java–an island that is part of the nation of Indonesia. Mr. Sururi previously worked taking care of horses and one of his clients, Nirwan Arsuka, gave him the books to start his traveling library. The photograph above, and the others in the story, were inspired interestingly enough,  by–what else today? A Facebook post on horseback librarians! The photographer then decided to tag along and record Mr. Sururi’s journey.

The program sounds like it was developed using Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky as its textbook! I loved every aspect of this project. People need hope and they need to dream and explore and imagine. Literacy must be encouraged in people of all ages and all walks of life. Books and magazines still have to provide that for many, many people where even WIFI cannot do the job. Thanks to Mr. of the New York Times Lens Blog for his great story today. Here is a link to the Quixotic Mission: Indonesia’s Library on Horseback.

When I served in Peace Corps in Malawi, people were starved for books and magazines. I ordered books from the National Library of Malawi which provided small traveling collections to just about anywhere that requested them. I also had long waiting list, scrupulously adhered to, for my Reader’s Digests and Catholic Digests my Dad’s cousin sent me as well as for any books I received from friends at home.  But how awesome if the four librarians in my Peace Corps class had been able to go to the most remote and poverty-stricken areas. How much greater the impact than to sit in a World Bank funded library used almost elusively (aside from my books and magazines) by international scholars who could, if necessary, call their home institution for information. Other Peace Corps Volunteers, those working with the country’s credit union, had dirt bikes. Those would have given a new purpose to Iron Horses–a good and positive one at that.

All this week we are celebrating National Library Week. Each day will feature a different aspect of libraries and how they make our world a little better.


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