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Trailblazers: The Evolution of Literacy in Appalachia

Title image of a Pack Horse Librarian climbing rough terrain with the title "Trailblazers: The Evolution of Literacy in Appalachia" by

Picture this: the rugged beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, where folks carved out a living amidst breathtaking landscapes and tight-knit communities. But in the early 20th century, access to books was as scarce as a needle in a haystack. Historical Appalachia is a tale of grit, determination, and frontier spirit, and the journey of evolution of literacy in Appalachia and education was not exempt to the same challenges. The pioneers of Appalachian literacy movements braved the rugged terrains and societal challenges to cultivate a culture of learning and enlightenment, the people conquered the challenges placed before them, and together they all shaped the region’s literary legacy.

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the New Deal to help provide educational resources to remote areas. In the late 1930’s, the Pack Horse Library initiative began. These librarians, who were mostly women, rode horses or mules loaded down with books, magazines, and other reading materials across rough terrain and through harsh weather, delivering reading materials and fostering a sense of community and intellectual curiosity to remote homes and schoolhouses. And aside from the harshness of the region, the librarians also had to fight the social stigmas surrounding education in the area. Many people were unable to read on their own and would have to be read to. Unfortunately, many husbands felt that their children and wives would not longer serve the household needs – caring giving, cooking, cleaning, gardening, etc – if they were distracted by books or education. The fearless pack horse librarians arose as unsung heroes and symbols of hope and knowledge for the people of Appalachia.

The Pack Horse Library Project came to an end around 1948 as a result to progress and change in the world around Appalachia. Roads and bridges were built, making the remote regions more accessible. As the Great Depression came to an end and the economy improved, funding appointments switched to post-war recovery and left little remaining to programs such as the Pack Horse Library Project. But the encouragement of education and literacy in Appalachia didn’t end there! The advancements of technology and the new roads and bridges allowed the new mobile book carts to begin delivering to the region in the mid-20th century. These carts were rolled from town to town and allowed the people to browse a larger selection of reading materials.

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With the advancements of literature transportation, the development of schoolhouses, and soon the construction of brick and mortar libraries in the 20th century, the opportunities for education and reading in Appalachia continued to bloom and expand to more and more individuals and areas. From there formed adult education initiatives that focused greatly on literacy skills and from the hollers to the highlands, Appalachian literature became a beacon of pride, preserving the rich tapestry of culture and heritage for generations to come. To this day the art of Appalachian storytelling is celebrated as a way to honor the history of passing down wisdom, tales, and entertainment in the region.

As are most all stories of Appalachian life, the tale of literacy in Appalachia is one of resilience, resourcefulness, and relentless pursuit of progress. My pursuit of connecting families and communities through literacy seems to connect right back to my roots of Appalachia and these early trailblazers with the ongoing desire to keep the stories alive. There are many books now that chronicle the growth and role of literacy in Appalachia.

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