Dolly Parton is many things to so many people: singer-songwriter, actress, humorist, icon. But to nearly 2 million kids around the world, she’s their librarian.
Since 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program has delivered meticulously chosen, personalized, age-appropriate books every month to children up to five years old — all free of charge.
Parton’s charitable endeavor, first launched in her native Sevier County, in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, was inspired by her hardworking, wise, yet functionally illiterate father. The program is the cornerstone of Parton’s Dollywood Foundation, which she started in 1988, initially with the aim of encouraging students to stay in school and offering scholarships and financial incentives for them upon graduation. The foundation’s efforts helped the county’s dropout rates to plummet from nearly 40 percent to six percent, and mobilized the community to work toward sustaining that improvement.
“We just started this in my home county… We thought, ‘Well, maybe if we’re lucky it might go a couple of counties over,’” Parton herself said in the 2020 documentary The Library That Dolly Built.
But the operation went well past that, and then some.
How It Began
Inspired by its local success in Sevier County, the Imagination Library went statewide in Tennessee in 2004, while efforts to roll out the program on a national level began in earnest back in 2000. By 2006 it was in Canada, with the U.K. coming on board the following year. Currently, the Imagination Library distributes books to 1.8 million children throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the Republic of Ireland, and Australia. By 2010, it had delivered 25 million books, and as of February 2021, the number is nearly 155 million.
While Parton’s public role as Dollywood Foundation chair and its “Chief Inspiration Officer” are an undeniable force and a testament to its continued success, the passion, perseverance, and teamwork of a worldwide group of dedicated professionals, corporate and community partners, and enthusiastic volunteers all bolster Imagination Library’s continuing mission.
Tasked with the day-to-day operation of Imagination Library is a staff of 15, many based in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Led by Jeff Conyers, the president of the Dollywood Foundation, the library leadership roles include a director of operations, who oversees the program’s day-to-day global efforts, including the book-ordering system, book selection, and fulfillment; a director of marketing and development, who leads the foundation’s continuing mission to bring awareness to the benefits of Imagination Library; and a two-person finance team.
The organization employs two executive directors, one in the U.S. and another based in Edinburgh, Scotland, who oversees the program throughout the U.K. and Ireland. Five regional directors, two each in the U.S. and U.K., and one in Canada assist them. Launched in Australia in 2013, where currently more than 6,000 children are receiving books, the program is delivered under a partnership agreement with United Way Australia.
“The executive directors and the regional directors work to grow the Imagination Library, to expand the presence on the ground in communities where we operate,” says Sam Roberts, the Dollywood Foundation’s director of operations. “They meet with new partners who may be interested in starting a program or legislators who want to bring it to their state or province. So, they really are on the ground as our sales team, to answer questions and help implement these programs. And then from that point, once we get a program up and running, the operations and finance team steps in and gets them set up in our system, provides training and support to start enrolling children in the program, and oversee the acquisition of the books and the fulfillment of the books every month to get them, ultimately, into the hands of the kids and in their mailbox every month.”
Network of Volunteers
In addition to corporate sponsors and affiliate organizations, such as United Way, Imagination Library relies on about 2,500 local community partners in the five countries currently served. Within those community partners, there are thousands of local volunteers working day-to-day to either help raise money or enroll children and update records.
The program, of course, would be nothing without a carefully selected library of books, which are printed especially for the Imagination Library and often include helpful notes for parents. The book selection is updated annually — usually midyear to prepare the list for the following calendar year — by a volunteer committee of experts in early-childhood development (think educators, librarians, and authors, all with a variety of experience in evaluating the right picture books for children). Generally, a three-day event that’s often hosted at Parton’s DreamMore Resort in Pigeon Forge, the most recent committee meeting was reconfigured as a virtual gathering due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the process of book selection remained the same: Imagination Library has an exclusive partnership with publishing giant Penguin Random House (PRH), which provides access to its vast catalog of children’s picture books. Over the three days, PRH presents some 200 or more titles to the committee for consideration.
Selecting the Books
And here’s where it gets particularly interesting — and entertaining. The committee literally reads each book aloud and then discusses its merits or limitations, with regard to how well it fits in with the original book-selection committee’s guidelines. They want to make sure that the themes and concepts fit well with the developmental milestones of each of the five age groups that receive books. While many titles remain consistent throughout the library, in the U.S. program, for instance, approximately 25 percent of the books will be replaced with new titles each year (for example, if 100 books are chosen, 75 will stay the same in any year).
The committee members also rely on parental feedback received throughout the year to gauge families’ interest and address any potential concerns about particular titles. Titles also cater to a particular country’s cultural makeup and interests. Canada’s selections, for example, include titles relevant to the country’s First Nations people. Audiobooks and books in Braille have been available in the program since 2011.
“It’s very, very important to us to make sure that children’s experience is reflected in the books that they receive through the Imagination Library,” says U.K. Executive Director Marion Gillooly. “We take great care to look at diversity in terms of ethnicity and family composition and different types of story, different characters. Females as the main character where we can. We make sure firstly that children can see themselves reflected somehow in the stories, but also that it opens their minds to their experience and to other worlds and different experiences.”
With the titles for each age group set, getting the books delivered to children requires an overlapping process month to month, and begins with a projection and ordering workflow that gets underway at least six months ahead of home delivery. The operations team determines how many books need to be ordered and printed per month, then places that order — leaving enough time for the books to be printed, bulk-shipped, processed, and mailed. Rather than warehousing a massive quantity of books, and to maximize cost-effectiveness, the program relies on historical data and information from its vast network of “program champions,” the many volunteer community partners who help enroll new participants, so that the book orders keep pace with enrollment numbers. Printed and packaged in China, the books arrive at New York’s Penguin Random House offices a few months later.
At the same time, new children continue to be enrolled with the help of local program partners, either through paper registration or via the Imagination Library website. Program affiliates and volunteers work to add and approve children within the system in time for the next book order on the first day of the following month. Using its unique book-ordering system, the foundation generates a book order for every child registered, with a label produced for each book. Upon enrollment, the child’s “welcome” book arrives with a special letter from Parton, as does their final “graduation” book when they turn five years old. Books are ordered from PRH, then pulled and shipped from PRH to four fulfillment centers worldwide, where processing for mailing begins. Each book is unpacked, labeled, and shrink-wrapped for mailing, delivered to a bulk-mail facility, and, finally, sent to the individual child via the U.S. Postal Service.
“We deal with a lot of the same operational challenges that large supply-chain companies deal with: production, shipping, delivering,” says Roberts. “Sometimes it feels like we’re in the shipping business. But other than that, it’s a matter of what every business wrestles with, which is having people learn and understand what you’re about and why they should get involved with you, particularly, in our case, families with young children.”
With such a relatively small core staff, the Imagination Library’s sustained success and ultimate growth depends on the many partnerships that have developed since the program began. “Those partners that we work with to deliver books to 44,000 children in the U.K. and nearly 6,000 children in Ireland, all of those people are fundraising to pay for the books, and posting the books to the children,” says Gillooly. “We don’t have to pay for any of their overhead. That’s a really crucial part of what makes this work on such a scale. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Without Dolly we couldn’t do it, but Dolly couldn’t do it without local partners and affiliates who work so hard raising awareness, enrolling children, and fundraising to keep the program going.”
“The community partners are the secret sauce to the Imagination Library growing and being as successful as it is,” says Jeff Conyers, Dollywood Foundation president. “[They] are truly how this program thrives.”
One such figure in the program’s success is Karl Colón, executive director of the Greene County Public Library in Xenia, Ohio. Colón, who with his friend, the late Kay Webster, then the library’s youth-services coordinator, wanted to address a gap in children’s readiness to be taught to read by the time they reached kindergarten. Webster discovered the Imagination Library and Colón began to raise money to start a program in Greene County, building a team with support from service organizations including Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis, and United Way, among others.
“United Way of the Greater Dayton area has actually been our biggest funder for the project because they could see how Dolly would make all the different things that they do work,” says Colón. “And Soin Medical Center here in Greene County realized that higher literacy means better health outcomes, and they became major donors. The whole community pulled together.”
The Library That Dolly Built
The effort to expand the Imagination Library statewide throughout Ohio was aided immeasurably by a high-profile couple whose grandchildren were enrolled in the program. “They saw how much joy the kids had when they got that book out of the mailbox and it had the child’s name on it,” Colón explains. “The grandparents became deeply committed to wanting to do more with the project. Grandpa got elected governor of Ohio in 2018. His name is Mike DeWine. Grandma is Ohio’s first lady, Fran DeWine. When she became first lady of Ohio, her team reached out to us here at the library and said, ‘We’re going to take this statewide.’ Instead of just the communities in Greene County, Mrs. DeWine went and talked to communities in 88 Ohio counties. At the time the statewide effort started, there were 40 programs in Ohio. But Mrs. DeWine went community by community to talk to them about what they saw … what it means to children, what it means to families, the joy and opportunity that comes just by getting that book through the door.”
In 2015, with 740,000 children already enrolled worldwide, Conyers, who joined the Dollywood Foundation as executive director in 2011, developed with his team a 10-year strategy to grow the Imagination Library through more statewide programs, setting the goal of enrolling 10 percent of all children up to five years old in the U.S. (approximately 2 million). “We thought that was a big enough goal where it scared us to think about it a little bit,” he says. “Of course, here we are today with quite a few statewide programs: Arkansas, Ohio, Delaware, North Carolina, West Virginia. Colorado’s coming on board, Oklahoma. We have about 1.7 million children enrolled in the U.S., and roughly 20,000 to 30,000 net new children a month is what we’re adding to the program right now. We’re marching towards achieving that goal early.”
Underscoring the program’s mission, Conyers points to the many challenges presented throughout the Covid pandemic. “The Imagination Library model — delivering a book to a child or family at their home in the mailbox with their name on it — held up really well. Families were finding themselves stuck at home, and we were able to continue to deliver upon the promise of a gift of a book in the mail every month. I cannot tell you how many families reached out to us and thanked us for even just a few moments of respite, sharing a great story and having their kids get excited about something, running to the mailbox and getting their book.”
“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, this is one of the most precious things,” Parton said in The Library That Dolly Built. “If you’re lucky and fortunate enough to be in a position to help, you should help.”
Parton has certainly done that, according to Conyers. “One of the reasons all of this has worked so well is because of one Dolly Parton. She’s such a trusted name and brand. When a family hears about the Imagination Library and that she’s involved, there’s a trust barrier there that’s maybe lower for us than it may be for some other organization just because Dolly’s involved,” he says.
But in the end, the Imagination Library succeeds because of teamwork. It may start with Parton, but it trickles all the way down to the staff and volunteers who keep the pages turning.
“We run it pretty lean and everybody has a really, really full plate, but we’re averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 16 new programs a month,” Conyers says of the library’s growth. “We have a fabulous team.”