Pack Horse Librarians

Every Monday morning, I stop by the North Branch of Herrick Public Library in Holland, Michigan. As I leave with a large and heavy bag full of books, I breathe a prayer of gratitude for libraries and librarians.

My love affair with libraries began early in my childhood, and by the time I was an 8th grader asked to research three possible occupations, I chose librarian (along with teacher and missionary). I eventually fulfilled that dream by volunteering in an amazing library offered by First Presbyterian Church in Flint. I was asked to help by someone who had seen me in the library every week after church.

My first memory with libraries outside of my elementary school was the Holland Public Library located on the top floor of city hall. It was a long walk up the stairs and the building was not air-conditioned. As a teen-ager I worked on a research paper in that library for Miss Van Dyke’s senior English class for so long that I fainted dead away. I woke up to see the head librarian kneeling over me with a glass of water. How embarrass- ing is that for a 16-year old!

In my 30’s we moved to the small town of Burr Oak with its tiny one room library. This library was the salvation for Kelly, my third-grader, who was so bored in school that he  carried two or three library books per day to read when he was done with his school work. If he didn’t have any books, he refused to go to school. I had to promise to take him to the library the next day it was open (about 3 days a week) before he would agree to go to school.

The Imlay City Library was right down the street from our house, next to the beauty shop and across from the hardware store.  I remember reading a series of books on the Queens of England by Jean Plaidy and being devastated when I came to the final book. This library is where I met my co-conspirator in a sustained campaign to begin a “gifted” program in the elementary school.  It came into place the year after my family left the district. 

 My next stop was the Lapeer County Library where my most important memory is the securing of office space in the basement of the administrative building for an adult literacy nonprofit that I had founded and a conference room in the main library in which I presented seminars on the work of Stephen Covey

The huge Flint Public Library was a big step up for me. Not only did it house thousands and thousands of books, it subscribed to every magazine and journal I had ever longed to read; I often plopped in an arm-chair to read them. I also remember systematically going through the many well-stocked VCR shelves for movies I had always wanted to see.

Finally we returned to Holland and I immediately got a library card for the North Branch of the Herrick District Library where every staff person now recognizes me. I make constant use via my computer of the library inter-loan system, the Lakeland Library Cooperative, made of 75+ local libraries in West Michigan. I pick up the Book Pages publication on the first of the month and add the want-to-read books to my computer- rized list of books (now numbering seven single-spaced pages!) to put on hold. If I can’t find a book I want there, I am just a click away from the stacks of the Library of Michigan which sends the books to my library for pick-up.

This love affair with libraries story was inspired by a story on NPR about the  Pack Horse Library Project, a Works Progress Administration pro- gram that delivered books to remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains between 1935 and 1943. It seems Eleanor Roosevelt was concerned about the children of the depression who would not have access to books. Unemployment in Appalachia was so widespread that an organization was funded to hire women who were paid $1 a day to deliver books to local communities on horseback. People who did have access to books donated their sometimes tattered books and magazines to the project. 

The women rented horses for 5 cents a day, loaded a pack of books that sat behind the saddle, and then followed paths or  animal trails or rivers through the woods to deliver the books. They also spent hours going through the donated books and magazines creating scrapbooks of recipes, how-to-do articles, children’s stories, etc. And since the children often couldn’t read, they tried to find time to read to them before they left for home. Even-  tually thirty libraries serving 100,000 people were founded before the program ended and the states took over the supervision of libraries.

The NPR story about pack horse librarians included an interview with a 97-year-old woman who spoke with pride about her involvement in the program. Sons and grandsons whose relatives had been librarians also spoke with enthusiasm about how they had not only brought books to the wilderness, but they also had contributed financially to the support of their families. 

From pack horses to internet websites and everything in between, cities and towns and their librarians have found a way to make books and information available to children and adults like me.  I will be forever grateful.

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2 Responses to Pack Horse Librarians

  1. Barb Sibley says:

    I, too, have a life long love affair with libraries. When I was a child, my best friend’s father would drive us to the local library, which was a big old house converted to to hold rooms and rooms of musty-smelling wonderful books. We went every Thursday night; I still remember the adventure of slipping into the back seat of the Buick my friend’s dad drove, browsing through all the books and checking out as many was we could, and then going out for ice cream on the way home.
    For days afterwards, once my friend and I tired of playing with Barbies dolls and board games, we would sit on her side porch, in companionable silence, and read…for hours on end. It is one of my most cherished childhood memories: the Buick, the library visit, the ice cream, the friendship….and the deep love of books and reading that my friend and I still share, more than 50 years later.

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