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"Packhorse Library carrier." Courtesy of the University of Kentucky via Kentucky Digital Library.

As a constellation of libraries rapidly spread across the US at the turn of the twentieth century, a corps of passionate, trained librarians stepped up to staff them. Library jobs in the eastern, more populated areas of the country became highly competitive, and many women librarians were compelled to move to rural southern and remote western destinations in order to put their educations to work. Many assumed leadership positions in their new libraries because of their unique knowledge and skills.

These new jobs came with difficult contexts and challenges. In remote places, new librarians often arrived to find that residents prized libraries more as meeting places than educational resources. Communities rarely used the outdated or unappealing materials they offered and provided limited or no financial resources to revise their collections and programming.

Despite these obstacles, successful librarians transformed their libraries into cultural centers at the heart of their towns. Many created traveling libraries to reach rural areas. Others worked in collaboration with schools to create programming for children that might also attract parents, or programs that brought educational materials to the workplace. Far from embodying the stereotypical image of the shushing, uptight spinster, this generation of independent women librarians innovated ways to provide access to information with few resources and performed tasks, like horseback book delivery, that were considered men’s work. Despite the dangers and isolation of remote settings and the close watch of small communities, women librarians in the west and rural south were often afforded unique freedoms and treated as valued members of the community. These librarians were also supported by a new generation of middle and working class women volunteers who helped bridge the staffing gaps and make library services available to broader audiences.