Women, Mobility, and Libraries

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By: Beverly Goldberg

Courtesy of: American Libraries

Long before there were such devices as smartphones and tablets—or personal computing, for that matter—women in librarianship were bringing reading material to people beyond the four walls of a physical library. As Women’s History Month draws to a close this March, American Libraries celebrates the library workers, most ofthem women, whose mobile devices for delivering literacy consisted of wagons and horses bearing books door to door in rural America.

According to the Western Maryland Regional Library, “the first bookmobile in the United States was introduced in Washington County, Maryland, in 1905. Mary L. Titcomb, the first librarian of Washington County Free Library, considered seriously the need for the library to become a county library. Her task was to get books in homes throughout the county, not just in Hagerstown, the county seat. The first step was to send boxes of books on the Library Wagon to the general store or the post office in small towns and villages throughout the county.”

Reminiscing in The Story of the Washington County Free Library, Titcomb wrote, “As well try to resist the pack of a peddler from the Orient as the shelf full of books when the doors of the wagon are opened by Miss Chrissinger at one’s gateway.” Although Washington County’s Library Wagon, driven by WCFL janitor Joshua Thomas, met its end when a freight train hit it in 1910, an automobile took its place in 1912, driven and staffed by women. 

Of course, it wasn’t feasible to deploy an automobile into areas lacking roads, as was the case in parts of rural Kentucky until public works projects funded by the New Deal connected remote population areas to urban hubs. In the 1930s, FDR’s Works Progress Administration funded the Pack Horse Library Project, which enabled rural Kentuckians to have books delivered to them by women librarians who brought them in packed saddlebags.

Over at the Women of Library History blog of ALA’s Feminist Task Force, Jennifer Koth notes the contributions these women made, which is also acknowledged at Josephine’s Journal. Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky, by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer (HarperCollins, 2001), tells their story in more detail.