The title is mostly true! Back in the day, there were no national or even state-wide requirements for what a doctor had to know. So many were barely literate, learning their profession like apprentices more than students. When, in the 1870s, the new Harvard president wanted to have written exams before MDs were given their degrees, the faculty at Harvard protested!
Professor of Surgery Henry Bigelow, the most powerful faculty member, protested to the Harvard Board of Overseers, “[Eliot] actually proposes to have written examinations for the degree of doctor of medicine. I had to tell him that he knew nothing about the quality of the Harvard medical students. More than half of them can barely write. Of course they can’t pass written examinations… No medical school has thought it proper to risk large existing classes and large receipts by introducing more rigorous standards.”
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, each of us will have two ideas.
As you know, the Great Depression was a time of terrible unemployment across the United States and across the world. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started a wide variety of programs to attempt to alleviate the economic depression. One program created the “book women.”
Many rural communities at the time had little access to books. This of course meant they received a poorer education. With limited educations, economic opportunities were also limited. So the Works Progress Administration created the Pack Horse Library Initiative to bring the books to them. In the most remote areas, notably Kentucky, this meant librarians on horseback. Saddlebags would be filled with books, to be delivered to distribution stations, schools, and even front porches.
The horseback librarians were mostly made up of women whose salaries were paid by the Works Progress Administration. They were generally locals, so that people would trust them, and use the program. The Pack Horse Library Initiative stopped in 1943, because it was no longer needed: World War II basically ended rural unemployment.