WPA Travelling Libraries
A Speech in 1937
In the summer of 1929, with the depression threatening and but an inconsequential minority suspecting its proximity, even so called far-seeing financiers guiding the destinies of Library endowments, there were not more than 250 county libraries in the country and approximately 25 to 30 of these were rendering direct personal book delivery service to people living in isolated areas not reached by hard-surfaced highways. About half of the latter were classed as seasonal.
Thirty years ago but three libraries were functioning in the nation’s more than 3000 counties as county institutions. They wore located in Hamilton and Van Wert Counties, Ohio, and Washington County, Maryland. Each had established library stations at cross roads stores, in churches, school houses and village centers whore books were taken in portable rack lots of 50 to 200 for the benefit of the people in that particular community. The Maryland library only included direct book service to isolated sections in addition to the Station Service, although for a dozen years previously individual book wagon routes had been operating in New York State without regard to county lines. The county library idea spread progressively, though slowly. It extended to Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Delaware, New Jersey, New England and other States, culminating in the practically statewide California service, authorized under several successive laws enacted by the State Legislature. Most county libraries were to be found in the more prosperous localities. There were few if any such institutions in the South and the personal or direct service phase was largely ignored or neglected. If personal delivery could not be made by mail, and an individual living in some far off mountain ridge or desolate river bottom wanted a book, he had to go for it to the nearest county station or do without.
The depression came and county libraries were sorely stricken financially. While no such chartered or State sponsored county institution ceased to function, the service was seriously curtailed. These curtailments increased as endowments and the finances of the smaller political units went from bad to worse. Rescuing funds from the Federal government through relief agencies came in the nick of time. Numerous employees were being furloughed, others were having their salaries cut for the third or fourth time, book repair and book purchases had ceased, many buildings were sadly in need of repair and service was cut to the bone in the summer of 1933.
“If the government had not stepped in when it did, particularly with the advent of the CWA*, there is small doubt that scores of the smaller county libraries would have been forced to stop service altogether,” remarked a WPA official recently. *The Civil Works Administration (CWA) was a short-lived job creation program established as part of the New Deal.
County libraries began to function again as they had in pre-depression days, first under CWA and ERA and later under WPA* (. Indexing, filing, service, book repair and additions to personnel followed under these relief agencies. County library extension service is perhaps one of the most outstanding “white collar” accomplishments under the present relief administration, if not the most outstanding. This service includes approximately 2000 “travelling libraries” in which the personal book delivery element to people living off the beaten paths is stressed. It is aptly expressed in a remark of a WPA library extension worker in Kentucky: *The Works Progress Administration, created in 1935.
“Distance and roads are no barrier to book deliveries to citizens who want them,” she said, after observing travelling library employees’ work in that State.
Kentucky’s WPA library workers, mostly young women, are taking books and periodicals to these people and the children of their schools on mule back, in rowboats, antiquated flivvers, and sometimes on foot, at regular intervals, and without extended seasonal interruption. They are leaving in their wake seeds of hope which must, inevitably, germinate into improved educational standards which a century of effort by state education boards and private philanthropies have failed to accomplish in three quarters of a century. In addition, this type of relief employment is crystalizing a demand for books in rural and isolated sections of the country which recently prompted Assistant Administrator Ellen S. Woodward, who heads the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, under which the WPA Travelling Libraries operate, to say:
“We have been told that at least forty million persons in this country are without library facilities. Many of these live in rural areas and to meet their need communities have sponsored Works Progress Administration library projects. Some two thousand traveling library units are now supplying good books and other literature to approximately five hundred thousand persons. I hope that the recognition of the values derived from these projects will result in the establishment of such services as a regular community activity financed by local tax funds. Such a continuation would integrate the work already started and give those workers, who have rendered valuable services on an emergency basis, a permanent place in the economic life of their communities.”
One day last fall, a young woman WPA library worker riding a mule with two canvass bags holding 50 books
hanging to either side of her saddle pummel, stopped at a door of a clean two-room log cabin far up in the Cumberland mountains of Kentucky’s Harlan County. A mountain woman on a lower ridge, where she had left books on canning, had told her there was a sick child in this cabin. A tortuous creek bottom passing through gorges of jagged rocks and “foot log” bridges had been her road way up the mountain. She found a seven year invalid girl on a home-made pallet; seated at her side was her pipe-smoking “granny”. The worker read to the child for a while and then gave her several picture books.
“Learn me to read, book lady,” she explained. “Please if you learn me, I won’t be lonesome any more. I broke my back last year. It wan’t mended yet.”
This carrier reached the book station, an eight house village, at six o’clock that evening. She starts work at 4:30 o’clock in the morning on her route of sixty miles. Five WPA workers give Harlan County a complete library service. It is in Harlan County that a young man walks several miles each way to meet the “book lady” once a week to procure the book needs of his own and several other families.
Kentucky’s mountain schools open in early July and close toward the latter part of February. Mountain people prepare their small rocky grain and garden patches early. The February closing is a boon to the WPA library rider. There is no additional heavy bag of school reference books to carry to the one-room log school houses during the Spring freshet season. The entire mountain family works in preparing the soil and cultivating crops. Heads of some mountain families at first objected to “book ladies” leaving books at their houses during “crop months”.
“We don’t get no work out’n ’em”, one explained. “Leave the bible and things that he’ps in sewin’, cannin’, an’ cookin’, but no mo’.”
Last spring a “book lady’s” mule died from blood poisoning. She could not afford to buy another. Through the balance of the Spring and until late summer this worker made practically all of her book deliveries and collections on foot.
“I just kept jogging along,” she explained last fall. “My people wanted books. I did my best. Now I’ve got another mule”.
In one of the “foothills” counties, another carrier ties her mule to a tree on the bank of a sleepy creek and uses a rowboat to reach the homes of six or eight families living along the stream within several miles of what she describes as “Tony’s hitch”.
Another worker serves part of her route on foot. The roads are too rough for her aging mule. To lighten her load, she uses a pillow case in which to carry her books instead of the heavier canvass bag.
The projects are sponsored by the Board of Education. Funds for the workers wages come out of a blanket
allocation of WPA funds to the State. “Pack-horse libraries” as the WPA authorities prefer to designate them are now opening in Clay, Elliott, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Lee, Leslie, Owsley, Pulaski and Whitely Counties. Last year they delivered a total of 33,000 books and back-number magazines to members of nearly 57,000 families. Additional service has been authorized or asked for in eleven more counties. There is an average of five workers to each county under the supervision of a trained librarian. Contributions of books and back-number magazines are sent to Kentucky’s pack-horse libraries from practically every section of the country.
Almost one-sixth of Adams County, Ohio, was under water when that river went upon its record breaking, unseasonal flood rampage last January. After the high waters receded the County’s five WPA travelling library workers sought scores of homes to which they had delivered many books and magazines a few weeks before. They found nothing but ruins and half-frozen mud. Often not even a vestige of homes or the few one-room school houses which they had served for more than a year. Adams is one of Ohio’s “roadless counties”, so-called because of a dearth of hard-surfaced roads. Their roads are sticky clay and practically impassable in the winter. Miss Flossie Jones is one of Adams County’s five library carriers. She uses a small automobile during the summer months.
“When the hard frosts come, I store the flivver and use Bob,” she said. “Bob’s my half-breed mustang. He can swim flooded creeks if necessary, plow his way through hock deep mud, or jump any fence in the County. He has done all three in the work. I’d use him all the time except that July and August are fearfully hot in the river bottoms.
Two hundred relief workers, mostly women, are employed by WPA travelling county libraries in 18 of the State’s counties. These libraries serve approximately 280 reading county and a number of CCC camps. Their stock of books and magazines is in excess of 75,000. Among the larger WPA travelling library projects in Ohio are those located in Wood, Belmont, Guernsey and Tuscarawas Counties. Auto-trailers are a favored method of carrying travelling library books in most of Ohio’s counties.
WPA travelling libraries are now operating in every one of Mississippi’s eighty-two counties. The initial work was begun under the Civil Works Administration with 4500 back-number magazines and books, most of the latter once classified as unfit for use. The work gradually expanded under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to be enlarged into its present statewide form by WPA. The only library boat in the country plies long reaches of the Yazoo River in Leflore County. The skipper’s patrons call her the “book boat girl”.
“Many people live along this part of the Yazoo whose homes cannot be easily reached by road,” she explained. “It’s back-land country. I doubt if any of them have ever seen a newspaper or magazine less than four to six months old. The children go to school. Most of them were book hungry without knowing it. That’s the reason for this ‘book boat’. If the service stopped, much happiness would go out of these river homes. The illiterates want picture books. The younger men and women seldom ask for cheap fiction”.
Horses, mules, buggies, carts, spring wagons, saddle bags, school buses, skiffs, automobiles and trailers are used to carry Mississippi’s travelling libraries’ books. The service extends to book stations, reading rooms, community centers and individual homes. Skiffs are used to reach the “shanty folk” of the delta bayous on the Gulf Coast
WPA executives point to Mississippi as their model library State. The projects include book repair shops and visiting readers for “shut-ins” as well as direct book service. The State is organized on a regional rather than a county basis, each region coming under the direct supervision of a trained librarian. The State’s six regional supervisors and a State director are appointees of the State Library Commission. The latter is sponsoring the work which it intends to eventually continue as a statewide service without Federal assistance. The project’s estimated cost for the present year is $292,588. Twenty-one counties and a few small municipalities are now contributing variable amounts to the sponsor’s share of the project’s cost. Finances of the remaining counties do not justify even small increases to their budgets. The book lists .and relief employees have jumped from 4500 and 85 respectively, under CWA, to 168,000 and 1240 this spring.
Thousands of books have been purchased in the past two years through systematic fund raising campaigns conducted by civic organizations, church societies and through direct donations. A unique WPA library celebration was held in Jackson last July. Hundreds of county people came to the Capital to see how persons in other parts of the State were getting their books.
Cashless contributions to book buying funds during the three days Jackson Celebration included 50 pound bags of peanuts, quarter barrels of molasses, chickens and fresh eggs. Last fall a Negro sharecropper whose daughter had just matriculated in a state vocational training school stopped a “book lady” in front of his home and presented her with a dozen bundles of neatly split kindling bound with baling wire. “Dese is fo’ to get mo’ books. Yas’um.”
WPA rural library activities are far more numerous in the Southern States than in any other section of the country. There has been woeful lack of any form of library service in this section of the country except in the cities, larger towns and universities. It has been the direct, personal book delivery to houses in isolated, out-of-the-way places which has appealed so strongly to the State’s rural population. Many regard it as a permanent service–a gift from the government.
The Mississippi pattern, changed slightly to meet varying conditions, has been introduced into practically every other Southern State, notably Georgia and South Carolina. None, however, has reached the Mississippi statewide basis. Several requests, however, have been filed with Federal officials for statewide extensions.
There are a number of WPA rural travelling library projects in the central, northcentral and western states, but with less emphasis on direct service. Mails are used chiefly for personal deliveries. Service in those states is confined almost entirely to schools and library stations. A number of such projects are operating in Kansas, Iowa, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Montana. There is similar WPA service in Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania. In other states where travelling service was already in existence, scores of WPA book repair projects are rendering valuable service in reducing book-cost overhead.
Source: National Archives, “WPA Travelling Libraries,” Record Group 69, Series 743, Box 1.
WPA. Division of Information. Alphabetical files related to publicity, 1936-37 (1937), “Libraries.” http://newdeal.feri.org/works/wpa07.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (April 12, 2014)