Pack horse librarian

In the 1930s, female librarians called the Pack Horse Librarians navigated the hills and hollers of Appalachia on horseback to deliver books. The Pack Horse Library Initiative, which was part of the Work Projects Administration, was President Franklin Roosevelt’s idea to raise the literacy rate in American and help Americans find jobs.

It was not an easy assignment. Often, these brave women were not trusted by the isolated families they served and were turned away. They also faced immense physical challenges (imagine riding a bony horse for hours in freezing temperatures). They crossed muddy and raging creeks, slid down snowy hills on horseback, and when the terrain was too difficult for their horses, they even finished their book deliveries on foot. These heroic and determined women would ride as much as 120 miles on a given week—just to put a book in the hands of an eager child or an exhausted mother or a suspicious father. No matter how many doors were shut in their face, they kept riding and delivering right up to 1943 when the horseback book delivery program ended.

Can you imagine loving books that much? Can you imagine how those women felt, after traveling so far in such adverse conditions, to have their books rejected? Why did they fight so hard to arm people with facts that would change their lives? How did they get up each cold morning and try again to earn people’s trust?

Earning a person’s trust with a book. That became the nugget for the character of Helen Moongoose in my novel, Up There. Helen is an abused wife who kills her husband and goes to prison. She is a woman who desperately needs to feel trusted and accepted again. When she gets out of prison, she sets up a free library in her sister’s hair salon in Cosette, MN, and begins deliveries. Helen in her rust-bucket Camry is a modern-day Pack Horse Librarian.

I admit I am not the trusting sort. I investigate every person running for office, even those eyeing the lowliest local position. I am suspicious of any stranger who knocks on the door. But I like to think I would have welcomed the Pack Horse Librarians with open arms.

I find that today we trust too easily and quickly. We don’t make ourselves work for it. We trust everything we read on social media because it sparkles or it agrees with us or it’s too much work to verify and research. Research can seem arduous to those for whom everything comes too easily. We do not like fighting our way up an icy hill atop a cranky beast to reach understanding.

Still, I trust books and those who love them. I trust science and research. I trust people who do the work. In my soft heart, I trust that when a person chooses a book from the Little Free Library down the street—the one I regularly contribute to—they will open it with curiosity and eagerness, ready to have their life changed.



Images of Pack Horse Librarians taken by the United States Work Projects Administration are from the Kentucky State Digital Archives. Thank you.

Read more about Helen Moongoose’s modern-day book deliveries in Up There.

Read about Pack Horse Librarians in Jojo Moyes’s novel, The Giver of Stars.

Check out the PBS documentary, “The Pack Horse Librarians of Appalachia.”