Public libraries in the Great Depression suffered along with everyone else, but at least two federal programs actually expanded the reach of libraries.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) began operation in May 1933. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) superseded it in 1935. WPA continued in operation until 1943.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ellen Sullivan Woodward to direct the Woman’s Division of FERA in 1933. In 1935, she became head of the Women’s and Professional Projects Division of the WPA.
Opponents believed a woman’s place was in the home and not the workplace. But Woodward herself was a widow and single mother. Her government jobs gave her financial stability that, she knew, most other widowed single mothers lacked.
Woodward’s husband had been a Mississippi state representative. She won a special election in 1925 to finish his term but did not seek reelection. Instead, she began to work for the Mississippi State Board of Development and by 1929 had become its executive director.
In that capacity, she hired women to deliver library books to rural areas in Mississippi that lacked good roads. One of them used a houseboat. Others walked.
A 1935 article in The Survey describes the Mississippi project that served as a model to aid libraries in the Great Depression.
In 1938, 18,000 men and women worked on WPA library projects in 38 states. Another 12,000 people worked on book repair projects for school and public libraries in 36 states. WPA library projects included two structures. State-wide projects operated under the supervision of trained state-wide staff. Projects in individual libraries operated with little or no professional supervision.
An article published that year in the Bulletin of the American Library Association described state-wide projects in South Carolina and Ohio, plus one more that covered 20 counties in Kentucky.
Mississippi public libraries in the Great Depression
When FERA began its work program, Elizabeth Robinson, secretary of the Mississippi Library Commission, saw an opportunity. She had been trying to keep the commission in operation even though the state had not appropriated money for it. She herself had had no salary since June 1932. Robinson presented a plan for statewide library service to FERA.
At the time, Mississippi had the nation’s second largest percentage of rural population. It ranked near the bottom of all states in assessed property valuation. Its population of about two million people was approximately half white and half black. It was spread through 82 counties, and 43 of them did not have a single public library.
Coahoma County, third county south of the northern border along the Mississippi River, on the other hand, had had good library service for about ten years. It even provided excellent service to its black residents.
Robinson proposed at least one county librarian in every county and two in some of the larger ones. The Woman’s Division of the state Emergency Relief Administration approved the plan. It made Mississippi the first state to provide library service equalized geographically.
The legislature reinstated the Mississippi Library Commission’s appropriation in the spring of 1934. The commission soon directly reached 250 communities and initiated a very successful book project for the blind. Because of this project, Mississippi had more libraries in the Great Depression than before. Largely because of this project, the WPA library project boosted the number of libraries in other states as well.
Some specific library projects in Mississippi
Two county librarians served Sunflower County, immediately south of Coahoma County. When they started working in June 1934, the county had 66,000 residents and not a single library book. The librarians managed to acquire 3,000 volumes. They took out a five-year lease on library headquarters from the county commissioners. By the following year, the county had 13 busy reading rooms and 85 busy deposit stations.
Since most of the collection had been donated, it had plenty of titles most libraries would never have purchased. It did include such standards as Treasure Island and Little Women and magazines such as National Geographic, Good Housekeeping, andSaturday Evening Post. The local congressman donated agricultural bulletins that covered such subjects as infant care, canning, and pruning fruit trees.
The public raised money to purchase books with a tag day, a Christmas card sale, and a bridge tea. Many adults in Mississippi could not read. Similar fund drives in numerous counties provided supplementary reading for schools. These materials, in turn, enabled some school children to teach their parents to read.
Leflore County operated a houseboat library along the Mississippi River that served the needs of fishermen. But a visit to 1,400 homes in that county turned up 432 that had no reading material at all.
Economic inequalities among Mississippi counties made it impossible to establish library systems such as Coahoma County’s in all of them. Instead, the state established a permanent plan of regional systems with combined local, state, and federal funding. These systems provided services for several counties comparable to county systems but more economically viable in rural areas.
The Mississippi Library Project provided a model for improving rural reading in the rest of the country. And most of today’s public libraries in Mississippi began either as FERA or WPA projects.
South Carolina public libraries in the Great Depression
Organizing the project
The South Carolina WPA project operated under a trained state librarian and four untrained district supervisors. “Untrained” probably means that they were not professional librarians. They did have some practical experience. Each district supervisor was responsible for operations in about eleven counties. They worked with four technical advisors (surely professional librarians). Each advisor had one of four specific responsibilities:
- public library extension or organization and operation of county libraries
- book repair
- rural school libraries
At the beginning of 1936, only three of South Carolina’s 46 counties had viable library systems. These three counties operated five bookmobiles. With the WPA library project, 40 counties had library systems with 36 bookmobiles and numerous new reading rooms. The bookmobiles mostly served small communities and schools, especially in sparsely settled areas.
This dramatic increase required special planning, beginning with encouraging each county’s citizens to desire library services. In support of the initiative, the WPA provided a nucleus of new books. These books circulated along with whatever collections already existed. The rest of the organizational efforts could not have succeeded otherwise.
Apparently, the publicity failed to create interest in six counties. The other counties formed citizen library committees, with subcommittees for each small community. These committees raised funding to buy new books and operate the bookmobiles. although the WPA subsidized several of the bookmobiles.
Results of the project
By 1938, the libraries had bought 16,000 books with WPA funds. In return, the WPA required libraries to raise their own funding for still more library materials. Farm women proved to be the strongest supporters of the new libraries. They frequently brought produce to the libraries to sell. They also persuaded the counties to support the libraries with local tax money.
In this Jim Crow Southern state, the WPA arranged for complete library services for the African American populationt in Greenville County. In April 1938, it provided a separate collection and a separate bookmobile for the purpose. Before that date, the county had provided no direct library extension services for black adults. It had only infrequently served black schools.
Ohio public libraries in the Great Depression
Ohio had the highest per capita wealth and the best transportation infrastructure of the three states described in the article. It also boasted much better library services before the Great Depression started.
The Ohio WPA library project started in January 1938. Its structure was similar to South Carolina’s but less elaborate. The state librarian supervised six district supervisors, who were all librarians.
Each one supervised one of six library districts. Counties where individual income was sufficient to ensure permanent library services operated county-wide units. Two or more counties with insufficient income could work together as regional units. Already-existing libraries served as the centers of operations for both the county and regional units.
At the outset of the project, Ohio law required all counties to provide library services. It lacked any legal mechanism for combining counties into regions. WPA library personnel helped the state amend its laws. Scioto and Pike counties in south central Ohio served as the first demonstration.
Perry County, in southeastern Ohio, already had two public libraries. The one in the county seat of New Lexington became the center for the WPA project and established branches in four small villages. Each branch supplied its own reference collection, while the library in New Lexington provided circulating books. WPA clerks staffed these branches. New Lexington supervised them.
Increased demand for reading caused one county (unnamed in the article) to increase its annual library appropriation from $3,000 to $13,.000. And so even in this relatively well-off state, it had more libraries in the Great Depression than it had before.
Kentucky and the Pack Horse Library Initiative
At the beginning of the Great Depression, 20 counties in southeastern Kentucky had practically no library service at all. Churches and clubs subsidized private libraries in a few of the major population centers.
These counties were so poor that their governments could not have supported public library service even if there had been demand for it. They were sparsely populated, with homes scattered widely thought the mountains and valleys.
The region also lacked paved roads. It had a few “haul roads” that wagons could navigate. Otherwise, residents depended on trails and paths where vehicular traffic was impossible. Movement of any kinds of goods depended on pack horses or mules.
The Kentucky WPA, with little technical assistance, designed the most imaginative and best known of all WPA library projects, the “Pack Horse Library Initiative.”
The population in general exhibited distrust of any kind of outside help. To overcome this hostility, the WPA hired women native to the area to serve as library carriers. They knew their neighbors and local social conventions. They could therefore sell the idea of library services house to house.
Once people experienced how library services could help them, they became staunch library supporters and demanded more reading materials.
How the Pack Horse Library Initiative worked
A central pool of reading materials supplied a number of stations. From there, the library carriers took them by horse, mule, or on foot to homes within a radius of eight to ten miles. They offered a limited amount of reading materials. Delivering them was arduous. Demand for them was high.
Therefore, individual patrons could only check out one item and keep it for only one week. Families rarely received more than three items. If they were friendly with their neighbors, they could share materials for that week.
Most available books were donated. Not surprisingly, they did not correspond to what people actually wanted to read. Many of the books were so outdated that they would have been considered worthless anywhere else. In rural Kentucky, however, they had great educational value. People in the area preferred non-fiction to novels. They especially favored books about people, places, and things not familiar locally.
The greatest demand, however, was for literature intended for children. This category included not only readers but also scrapbooks of stories and pictures cut from magazines and newspapers. And not only children eagerly read them. Many adults who lacked adequate primary education enjoyed children’s literature—especially large print. They used it to improve their reading skills.
Donations also included back issues of magazines, which were very well received. Circulation of periodicals was about two and a half times as much as circulation of books. Area residents loved magazines with pictures but preferred practical titles such as Popular Mechanics.
The Pack Horse Library Initiative offered an inadequate collection and lacked the services of trained librarians. Yet it is hard to conceive of any other method of delivering library services under those conditions. It created demand for real county-wide libraries once the Great Depression ended.
Book relief in Mississippi / Beatrice Sawyer Rossell, The Survey 71 (March 1935):
Ellen Woodward and the women who brought literacy to Southern families / Laken Brooks, National Trust for Historic Preservation. January 12, 2021
WPA and rural libraries / Edward A. Chapman, Bulletin of the American Library Association. 32 (October 1, 1938):703-709.