National Library Week is here, so it’s a good time to salute those librarians who have gone the extra mile to get books in the hands of readers who might not otherwise get to read them.
And few librarians have gone more of those extra miles than the ones known as the Pack Horse Librarians of eastern Kentucky.
Today, if you live in a town where there’s a public library, you know how the model works.
Once you’ve got your library card, you can go in, check out books, use the computers, take your kids to storytime, use the resources as much as you want.
But in remote parts of Kentucky, in the middle of the Great Depression, a lot of people didn’t have running water, power or schools for their kids, let alone a library.
So when the government started setting up programs to provide jobs and social benefits to people who were facing hard times, they came up with a workaround for the people in coal country.
Librarians, mostly women, would ride on horses or mules carrying saddlebags full of reading materials.
The program only paid the wages of the librarians; they had to obtain their own horses.
And they brought whatever reading materials they could get.
They usually relied on donations of magazines, or books that were out of date or had been damaged and withdrawn from library collections.
Still, the program was popular.
One town would get a visit from a Pack Horse Librarian, and another would hear about it and ask for their own visit.
The librarians found ways to stretch the reading material further and further; they would clip stories out of newspapers and paste them into scrapbooks.
They held readalouds and shared picture books so they could also serve people who hadn’t learned to read.
At its peak the Pack Horse Librarians served some 100,000 people in eastern Kentucky.
The program ended in 1943, but there have been similar programs in the years since.
You’ve probably heard of bookmobiles, but remote parts of Alaska have had bush plane librarians.
In other countries, librarians have dropped off material with help from elephants, donkeys and camels, among others.
All of them from librarians finding ways to provide library service even when there isn’t a library nearby.
There is a world record for most overdue library book.
Guinness says a Colonel Robert Walpole borrowed the book in 1667 or 1668.
And a Sir John Plumb found it in another library, and returned it in 1956, 288 years later.
But they didn’t give out any fines.
The Pack Horse Librarians (Appalachian History)
Most overdue library book (Guinness World Records)
Photo via Wikicommons