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Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library expands free reading program in Louisville

Dolly Parton reads "Coat of Many Colors," the one hundred millionth book donated by Parton's nonprofit Imagination Library, during a ceremony in the Great Hall, February 27, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Imagination Library
Library of Congress
Dolly Parton reads "Coat of Many Colors," the one hundred millionth book donated by Parton's nonprofit Imagination Library, during a ceremony in the Great Hall, February 27, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is now available for kids under 5 years who live throughout Jefferson County. Previously, funding limited the Louisville-based affiliate to distributing books in a handful of ZIP codes.  

The Imagination Library of Louisville got a grant from the Louisville Metro Government which made the expansion possible. The Imagination Library of Louisville was founded in 2016 with Wave 3 News, the Junior League of Louisville, and the Jefferson County Public Education Foundation.

The program sends a free monthly book to children until their fifth birthday. Previously, the program was only available to certain ZIP codes in the West End, according to Bill Shory, co-founder and board president for the Imagination Library of Louisville.

“All the books come out of Pigeon Forge, and essentially they do all the programming as far as selecting books and negotiating the deals and all of that sort of thing,” Shory said. “To come to a community, there has to be a local affiliate that raises the money and signs up the kids in that community.”

Maria Gurren, the executive director of the local nonprofit, said the number of registered children has been rapidly increasing since they first announced the expansion.

“To think about a classroom of 5-year-olds who all receive the same stories and learn the same lessons from those stories and just had that experience of excitement around books,” Gurren said. “I think that sets kids off for a really great start to their education and their formal education.”

Imagination Library of Louisville

Each child receives a book based on their age. Every year, there is one non-fiction book and two books typically are dual-language in English and Spanish.

“The book selection is a really big deal,” Gurren said. “It's one thing that kind of sets Imagination Library apart from other book programs. So every year there's a group of child literacy experts, many of them connected to the University of Tennessee, that actually select the books for all the different age groups.”

To Gurren, the most important thing is that children are more prepared for school.

“This is something that is for every kid,” Gurren said. “It's our dream that every child arrives at kindergarten ready to thrive.”

The Knoxville, Tennessee library did a meta analysisshowing that children who participate in the program perform higher in kindergarten and throughout grade school. Gurren said the Louisville affiliate of the international nonprofit is working to examine how the program benefits local children.

“We are working with Dr. John Lee at U of L right now to design a program evaluation that will get information from parents about how receiving books at home has impacted their reading behaviors, their child's reading behaviors, their child language, are they using the library,” she said.

The grant supports the reading program throughout 2024. Gurren said the Imagination Library is looking for donors to help sustain the program.

Families can register on the Imagination Library of Louisville website.

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