Dolly Parton's IMAGINATION LIBRARY

Since launching in 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has mailed well over 90 million free books in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the United States. Currently, the program mails over one million specially selected, age-appropriate books monthly to registered children from birth to age five. Dolly’s vision was to create a lifelong love of reading, prepare children for school and inspire them to dream. Recent studies suggest participation in the Imagination Library program is positively and significantly associated with higher measures of early language and math development.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm speaking with David Dotson today who is the CEO of- actually go ahead and tell us the organization's name. I just want to make sure I got it correct.

 

David Dotson

The organization is called the Dollywood Foundation and our signature program is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

 

Molly Ness

So many of us who have grown up with Dolly Parton know her music, we may know her tearjerker movies, but we don't necessarily know her as a literacy activist. So, can you explain how this organization stemmed from this powerful media presence?

 

David Dotson

Sure. Well Dolly- you know- ever since really the beginning of her fame- so you go back into the 70s- always felt an obligation and a commitment to give back, particularly to children and most specifically to her hometown. So, that's always been a part of her, and it manifested itself in a number of ways, but particularly around the issue of books and reading. The inspiration for it all was really her father who could not read or write, and she always felt that she knew he was the smartest man in the world, but also- so how it really limited his opportunity. See he provided for them, but maybe so much more of his dreams could have been realized. So that really stuck with her and became an- always on her mind about how she can do something in a way that: number one honored him and then number two addressed the issue that he struggled with. So that's really the seeds of the program and it went on to develop into its own very distinct model that we still employ today twenty two years later

 

Molly Ness

So, let's hear about that model. Tell us what the Imagination Library is doing to get access to books- particularly for kids who are in some of our rural areas.

 

David Dotson

Well the program started just with the only ambition to be in our home county which is Sevier County, Tennessee- is East Tennessee in the mountains and for all the reasons we just discussed that was what she wanted to address, but the notion was that from kindergarten, teachers in particular- it was clear that here locally two things were happening. Number one is that so many children and many said a majority of the children were coming to kindergarten with virtually no exposure to books so obviously the second followed. There weren't any books in the home. That was an easy enough problem for us to address here locally because she's a person of resources, but we needed to do it in such a way- as we always call it- as she calls it- we needed to Dollyize it- just to give books away is a good thing, but we thought we could- with her- you can sort of increase impact by doing something in her way- in her style which rather than tries to teach or admonish it, inspires people. And so that's where- two things again happen. One, that the books- there had to be a lot of books. They had to be on a very frequent basis, and they had to be new. It had to be something that kids and families value so where we're at, that's where the model came. Once a month in the mail with a child's name on the brand-new age appropriate book and until their 5th birthday. So, if they're signed up at the hospital when the child is born, it's sixty bucks so that really was our model then and everything was really peachy-keen. We were mailing to and also, I guess I have one more thing to add by doing it in this way- this is where the Dolly- sort of the Dolly touch comes in- is that we wanted the recipient to feel like it was a gift. Not a charity, not a social service, not that there's anything wrong with those things. We just had the opportunity to do something different and we did. So fast forward from ‘96 to today that- two thousand children a month has now grown to 1.4 million a month and operating in five countries.

 

Molly Ness

Wow, how did that happen going from such a- a relatively small number to such a huge number all over the world. What was that process like?

 

David Dotson

Well it's- I’m fortunate enough to have been here this whole journey, no one else has so my version of history- of course is correct. Several things have happened. Number one, we had a very replicable model with a replicable cost to communities. The cost-sharing aspect allowed us to- and her- to observe all the overhead and then each community could elect to participate by only having to pay for the books in the mail for their children and they define their community is a geographical definition and then from there, that cost through our ability to negotiate with the publisher, our ability to seek the lowest possible way to mail books that we really had a cost of people when we heard and thought we can do this, so number one I think was having a model that allowed replication and allowed us to go to scale. Number two was that our big moment of a breakthrough really was back in about 2002 and 3 when Phil Bredesen who was running for governor for Tennessee came to us and said there's no reason why this program shouldn't be available to every child in the state. I'd like to make this part of my Early Education Initiative which he did. It took a year or so after he got elected and that suddenly put us in new numbers so we're looking at a couple of hundred thousand of kids a month in that point of time and it also gave us the idea that if Tennessee can do it, there's no reason why other states can't do it. There’s no reason why very large cities can't do it and at the same time never abandoning the really small areas. We have no minimum, so we can go from a one child-community to a half a million kids state. 

 

Molly Ness

Now who gets the pleasure of choosing all of these books that go out to kids? What is that part of the equation like

 

David Dotson: Yeah, very early on it was decided that number one- we would- I wanted to source all of the books from one publisher. It made the logistics work; it made the pricing work.  It's a lot cheaper to buy 10 million books from one source than it is 1 million books from 10 sources and if it was a large enough publisher you had plenty to choose so we did that- more or less like the old Nashville songwriter back in the day knocking on doors and saying- you know will you publish my song? Ours was hey, Dolly’s got this idea and we think this could be big but we need you to give us some breaks now that will be more than justified down the road with volume. And Penguin got that and jumped on board so they’re a huge- you know not only supplying - you know really working with us through the selection process, but the real key was commissioning a group of people who we call our Blue Ribbon Book Selection Committee That represented folks of various disciplines and expertise  and perspectives about what's appropriate developmentally at each age- you know from 0 to 5- the diversity that we always seek in content and also the formats. Formats are all different depending upon age and so we really needed assistance with that and guidance with that and leadership and that grew. We have mathematicians from the library world; we've got children's book editors; we’ve got retired kindergarten teachers; we have practitioners who work with parents and teachers- really working in the home; we've got all kinds of perspectives on the committee and they gather here… and we look at what- now it's easy in many ways. In the beginning, we're trying to get books in our prized points and what's available and how can we stand around and make all the stops and now with 16 million books a year, it's like hey what do you want? So, we're able to customize. We’re able to do bilingual books- our own. We're all- there's all kinds of things we can do now. So now the hard part is that there’s so much to choose from. How do you make the correct selections, so they meet over a three-day? Probably switch out over 20 books a year and read every new book aloud to each other so they can hear what it sounds like not- just what it looks like or how it reads- and start making those choices by the third day, deciding which books come out deciding maybe moving some books that think now in retrospect suited for a younger or older age so it's quite the process- the process so we do it for North America, the UK, and Australia.

 

Molly Ness

So those 16 million books a year- what's after? They're selected and- chosen by your committee and supplied by Penguin. What happens next? How are they sent out? I'm very tempted to make a nine-to-five pawn along the lines of I'm sure you guys are working far more than nine to five to get these books out, but how does it work? Is there an army of volunteers? Do you have a full-time staff? What are the logistics there?

 

David Dotson

Sure, for the foundation and for the fulfillment aspect of this, it's all staff and contracts- you know- when you're moving that many books every month you cannot be vulnerable to uncertainty so it's really a business model. Several things happen: one is that all the books- most of the books are published overseas actually made- some are in the US- that all depends. So essentially, we do not have a warehouse. I think everyone would like to think let's say we started in January of 2019. If you have 16 million books all selected and sitting in a warehouse and we start moving them out, I wish that were the case but that's not the way it works. So essentially, we order inventory based on our projections of what we have. It's a fairly elaborate production model we have developed based on trending growth and all those other variables. We have to nail quantity not just total in a month, but total for each title. There's eight different titles a month- really six different titles and then two the same. The first and last book then that gets the process started. So, let's say in January of 19, you've already dealt with the first part of January from the previous year so we're talking now. Say we need these books in July or August, they are made other points of bindery, they're shipped to the Penguin Random House facility in Indiana and then each month they arrive at our of fulfillment center in Knoxville, Tennessee where they are received in August to be prepared in August but to be mailed in September. So we're always working a month ahead and as soon as the last book goes is really 1.4 million books out at the end of the month. Here comes the rest they don't all come at once. We stagger them over each week throughout the month so they can receive a title process the title get the title ready to post and then over about a week, we mail them all on different days because we're doing this all through one post office in Knoxville. I used to feel sorry for them, but they told me one day that they get a bonus for volume, so they think we're the greatest thing in the world so what everybody's happy that way that's in a nutshell. It's pretty elaborate we have quite the database; quite we have to get the right name on the right label to the right book so there's a whole lot of technological underpinning to this that I'm not sure you or maybe two of your listeners out there would probably be really interested in but it's taken us a while and a lot of money and a lot of time and expertise and we've got something I think really special in terms of the database and what we've essentially built from the ground up.

 

Molly Ness

Well you're starting to go in the direction of data, so I want to go there in a second, but the point here is that you guys have a huge system that really makes this whole thing happen. Kids are depending on these books coming to them and as much as I like the idea in my head of what this warehouse would look like, obviously it would be all Dollyized and glittery and sparkly. You guys have figured out a way that works for you so when you talk that- I'm always interested in your impact. I mean, obviously we've got a huge number of books that are going out but can you tell us a little bit about the impact that you’re seeing as a result of your program. Talk to us about data that you're seeing from parents and kids in schools and in the overall community. And I will direct listeners to your website because I do know there is a really well-thought-out system where you are reporting some of your results and people would certainly be able to take a look at that but give it to us in a nutshell. What's the impact of this project?

 

David Dotson

Well the first thing we did obviously was to develop our own research logic model- what exactly on this continuum of opportunity. Where do we want to focus now? A lot of people abstractly think number one they want to do a great test of some sort that they randomized control and these kids score X percent higher on any kindergarten or readiness test and in third grade are all financially successful because they got the Imagination Library when they're 30 years old and that system is not possible but we had to zero in on where can we show impact in our logic model is that- we developed essentially- look at what are those skills that we can show impact on you know in terms of like vocabulary skills and others that may- are the foundation for achievement and so- you know in some cases that has translated to kindergarten readiness scores so much of that that's where we zeroed in. So how we approached it is that we really struggled in terms of what's the best investment of impact and our first thought is always like to some giant national study that- what you would pick some communities that are representative of it really expensive. And what happened was that as we started the high scope study early on which did that was a much more sort of compact sample size. But what we found was that no matter how great your research model is, and you go to community X, but community X has no research one that's fine for them. They say but that's not our kids and so really we're depending upon and encouraging and equipping any local community to do their own research because that's the only way that we get by in and impact and those range from some of the ones on the website- the more elaborate ones with randomized control and bigger places for a lot of communities that say all. We really want to do is hear what parents think about this and so with survey base and we have the ability to do surveys within our database. There's all kinds of we have to take with privacy and data sharing particularly now so it's gotten- the more we're still able to do it but we just have a more regimented way that we have to go about data sharing so the bottom line is this is- that number one of course as you might expect parents are over the moon whether that means approval on 90 percentile at all the time of what parents love and number two is that what we're trying to get on the surveys not just how happy you are but has your behavior changed so the culture of reading to your child and we certainly have seen when you aggregate all of that, a significant increase in the number of times a child has read two per week then before the Imagination Library depends from place to place, but it's usually two or three times where people started and that includes where many start which is 0, so that's that aspect. The other part really- scores and increases and skills generally get in the aggregate. We've seen anywhere between 10 to 30% increase over so those are the- that's one of our research where we're constantly looking and evolving and showing different ways. We can do impact- policymakers were trying to- what do you need to know so you can enact legislation and funding? There's no endpoint to research. It's always evolving; it's always changing with the trends and the needs at the time.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I'm so glad that some of your research really focuses on the creation of a culture of literacy. I believe it's something I try to demonstrate in this podcast- is that ending book deserts isn't just giving kids’ books, it's how we are going to create cultures of literacy where families are talking about themselves as readers and reading is an ingrained habit in homes and certainly this year, the number of books that you guys are giving out makes that happen much more readily than before.

 

David Dotson

Yeah, I think- I think so part of our- we realize there are other things that need to be done. That's not our area of expertise where we encourage communities. We can make sure the right book gets the right child at the right time and there's lots of them and they're really high-quality other things that you want to do- to wrap around that they're up to you. One thing that I wanted to do very early was to say I've been saying- I've had a career sort of in nonprofits, we tend to have just- to classify many things, missions of common chasing money is another reason and so you tend to die if you then dilute what you're doing by- you're trying to open up a new hey let's do parent stuff well we can't do our job if we're doing ten other things. We know what our job is. We know our- all our impact is and we're really just staying in that way and I think that's the main reason why we've been able to grow so much and the program. We've been tempted but we haven't succumbed to temptation to say- you know let's do this, let's do that. We try to have- we tried to add values in the books themselves. We have title specific reading tips in all the books they're not general reading tips but they're prepared on flaps in the back so they tell parents this is how to read this book to this child and we’re able to customize formats for… to do create bilingual contents that doesn't exist  because we print the books and they're printed just for us so there's a lot that we’re able to do within the confines of the book. Now say that which is interesting because this isn't published yet, but we just finished a year-long thing in Scotland with another organization who is volunteer oriented to say we’ll match our effort with your books and with volunteers to adjust culture changes- you know parents and children. Well the research was surprising, and it's how come because it showed there's two groups one with the volunteers and ones without. The games made in both in terms of comprehension, vocabulary- those kinds of things were the same in either group and the addition of the volunteers made virtually no impact on it. It was the books as a baseline so again, I don't know- I think there has to be more in books but for us it affirmed to us like books by themselves are pretty darn powerful in the home and if you can do nothing else in the world except for the books- lots of books in the home then that's a great choice.

 

Molly Ness

And the Imagination Library clearly is doing such a spectacular job of doing that. As we wrap up, I'm going to ask you my favorite question. I ask this of all of my guests in the spirit of creating a culture of literacy, I'm hoping that you can share a book from your past or present that has had a profound impact on you as a person and as a reader. My hunch is you are a lifelong reader yourself and you're constantly surrounded by books and people who are doing the work of getting books to kids- so it may be nearly impossible to choose just one so try your best to narrow down what would it be- the book that stands out for you?

 

David Dotson

Well, I’ll quickly give you a not an answer then I'll give you an answer. So the not an answer part is- the most influential person or thing in my reading career was not a book but a person- a teacher and when I was a junior in high school I was put in an honors English class- I don't really know why at that point in time but this- Mr. Collins, he exposed us to reading and writing. I learned how to read and learned how to write. He was very tough- of course you hate them at the time, but he was very- and he was- we had to read constantly every night a hundred pages of whatever book we're reading at least once a week and sometimes more. And we would have to write something about it and he would always do a quiz every week where he would say here's a hundred pages, take one sentence out of the hundred pages. leave blank one word and if you got the word you got a hundred no matter if you did the reading or not. And- it got to be a game with me. I'm going to find that sentence- you know, and I learned how to learn, how to digest reading, so all of that goes to say he was- what he turned me on to were classics. We were in high school and I have to say the book that I always was fascinated by- we read so many and so many were all Charles Dickens books- those books brought me to a different place with a different time politically and socially and it's- where I was in high school in the sixties. They spoke at the time of the issues of the day, but we're embedded in a story of the past and those books particularly Tale of Two Cities- just I'll always say was my starting point in literature.

 

Molly Ness

Yeah, you’re reminding me of a time when I was in high school that I read all of those classics. It's probably been about 20 years since I've returned to reading them, but I'm so glad to hear you talk about a teacher. Without knowing it, Mr. Collins was a literacy activist. He was getting reading and writing into a culture in his classroom and clearly impacted you. So many of the people on this podcast are literacy activists who are doing the work to get books into the hands of kids who need it the most. Well I'm so glad that we could talk. I'm now going to go download every Dolly Parton movie all of her…and go read the Who is Dolly Parton book from the very famous kids’ series because we all need to learn from her generosity and her work- that your entire team is doing. For more information on the Imagination Library and the work that you guys are doing, listeners will be able to access your website through mine endbookdeserts.com. Thank you so much for your time, David. We look forward to following you guys in the future and happy reading.

 

 David Dotson

Thank you- it was a pleasure.

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