WPA Library Programs

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A sign marking a packhorse library route, 1941. Courtesy of the University of Kentucky via the Kentucky Digital Library.

The Great Depression of the 1930s left millions of Americans and industries struggling. Libraries were no exception, with budgets slashed and former workers now facing unemployment. The public served by the libraries was suffering, too. At an American Library Association council meeting in May 1936, it was estimated that one-third of Americans were without "reasonable" public library access.

Enter the Works Progress Administration's library projects, which served forty-five states, and employed approximately 14,500 people—some of whom were experienced librarians put back to work. These projects included assignments like book cataloging and repair, which helped save community libraries thousands of dollars. By February 1938, WPA-reconditioned books (including a project in Louisiana repairing books in braille for vision impaired readers), totaled close to thirty million.

The WPA also had a Library Extension program that funded and built about 200 new libraries, more than 3,400 new reading rooms, and 5,800 traveling libraries. These traveling libraries helped reach the most remote communities in America in unique—and often brave—new ways. In Mississippi, for example, a WPA librarian used a houseboat to distribute books to communities along the Yazoo River that were not connected to state highways. A successful packhorse librarian program in Kentucky employed over 200 workers and sent librarians on horseback to rural mountain communities. They travelled along creeks and cliffs, and sometimes part of the way by foot or rowboat. These packhorse librarians helped connect about 100,000 residents in remote parts of eastern Kentucky with reading material in a manner never before possible.