Ellen Woodward and the Women Who Brought Literacy to Southern Families
In 1933, Ellen Woodward (1887-1971) came to Washington, D.C. She had recently begun working with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, but she held onto her primary passion: women’s poverty and unemployment. So when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women later that same year, Woodward did not hesitate to attend.
At the conference, Woodward encouraged administrators and legislators to fund more jobs for women, especially women in the South (including in her native Mississippi). These projects would impact thousands of citizens and make American history.
Among Woodward’s favorite programs was the Mississippi Library Project, where counties received funding to create libraries. Over time, the WPA-era libraries in Mississippi were demolished or renovated. But preservationists continue to point to the Library Project as the start of something special, a legacy that would survive outside of the confines of any historic building.
While the federally funded libraries could employ women as librarians and improve literacy in Mississippi, these brick-and-mortar structures could not serve the families living in the most remote areas of her state. Woodward grew up in the American South and had traveled throughout its rural communities.
While she grew up with the financial privilege to attend seminary school and to read voraciously, Woodward saw firsthand that many Southern families did not have this same access to educational opportunities. So she hired women to deliver books on houseboats and by foot across Mississippi. Little did Woodward know, at the time, that word of these traveling librarians would circulate past even those rural spots in her home state.
The traveling women working with the Library Project inspired one of the most famous and influential WPA projects in rural America: the packhorse librarians.
Making Books Accessible in Kentucky
When Woodward was appointed as the director of work relief programs for women under President Roosevelt, she imagined her own New Deal: an agreement with women in the valleys of Appalachia to transport books to some of the most isolated homesteads in the United States. When she studied the region, Kentucky reminded her of Mississippi. Like in Mississippi’s Library Project, constructing new libraries in Kentucky would not solve the deeper educational access issues. Some of the poorest children, those whose families could not afford books, lived miles away from the nearest town, let alone a library.
Woodward consulted with municipal leaders to hire women, pinpoint the families and communities who most needed books, and trace delivery routes throughout the mountains. These Appalachian civil servants became known as the packhorse librarians, because they would ride for miles on horseback throughout the rocky mountains of Kentucky.
Some women delivered books to residents who lived within a 100-120 mile radius. The librarians provided their own transportation, often riding their family’s horse or mule. While the $28 monthly salary was a low reward for the librarians’ taxing journey, the funds were a welcome respite. Many of the librarians were the daughters of farmers, themselves impacted by the Great Depression.
The premise of the program was simple: deliver as many books to as many Kentuckians as possible. In practice, though, this goal was an uphill battle, physically and metaphorically. The packhorse librarians worked in poor weather conditions with dwindling resources. When they could not ride their horses or mules on uneven roads, they walked. But like Woodward herself, the librarians were resourceful.
With the packhorse librarian program, the WPA did not build new library buildings as it had in Mississippi. Instead, Kentucky’s women brought libraries to life in the nooks and crannies of their communities. When they ran out of books to give to local children, they would paste together scrapbooks to distribute. And when they needed venues to distribute books, they made pop-up libraries in post offices, general stores, and churches.
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Fortunately, Woodward was inspired by women in Kentucky who had already worked to deliver books. In 1913, a Kentucky woman named May Stafford began her own short-lived horseback librarian initiative. Later, Berea College sent library wagons to serve the mountain villages. But with the support of the federal government, Woodward renewed these efforts to reach more of Kentucky’s rural readers than ever before.
Under Woodward’s leadership, the remote libraries had a big payoff in the region—financially and educationally. Eliza McGraw with the Smithsonian Magazine reports that from 1934-1936, the packhorse librarians had helped 50,000 families in Kentucky. By 1937, the librarians had serviced 155 public schools across the state.
Expanding the Reach
Because this program served a segregated state, modern archivists with the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky state archives are researching how these librarians did or did not serve Black Kentuckians. Women of color feature as prominent characters in two recent publications (2019) about the packhorse librarians: "The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek" by Michele Richardson and "The Giver of Stars" by Jojo Moyes.
However, current records do not indicate how many of the actual packhorse librarians were Black. Historians also continue to search for records to determine if the packhorse librarians specifically served segregated schools and towns. The WPA did establish library outposts in segregated communities, though. Black librarians helped lead these local literacy efforts. This outreach was transformative since, at the time, a third of Kentuckians could not read.
While Woodward may have focused initially on children’s literacy, adults began to ask for books, too. Librarians requested recipe books, quilting patterns, and religious materials to fill popular demand. Woodward herself traveled across the state to fundraise.
When news of the packhorse librarians reached people outside of the state, book donations streamed in from across the country. The packhorse librarians didn’t just carry books in their saddlebags. They carried stories and hope, welcome distractions for Americans living during a national economic crisis.
Even after that 1933 conference on women’s poverty, Woodward fiercely argued for Southern women. Later in her career, reflecting on the packhorse librarians and other literacy initiatives, she wrote, “WPA library projects have established reading rooms in isolated rural areas and city slum sections where books were never before available … Is this a useless waste of public money? Is not such a service as this—giving new hope and interest to the woman needing employment and saving that family from disintegration and despair—of lasting value to the community?”
The packhorse librarians, like other WPA teams, were formally disbanded in 1943. But their legacy lives on today: As of January 2021, Kentucky had over 140 bookmobiles and outreach vehicles.
While Woodward defended the expense of her library programs, she could never have known that, for Kentuckians, the lasting impact of the packhorse librarians is priceless. Kentucky’s 21st-century librarians may not use horses to deliver books, but their bookmobiles also bring stories and hope to a new generation of Appalachians.
The author extends her gratitude to the following for their generous research assistance and archival guidance: Reinette F. Jones, author of Library Service to African Americans in Kentucky (2002) and special collections librarian at the University of Kentucky; Eliza McGraw, writer; and Lisa Thompson, librarian at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives.
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