More books are being delivered each month to Knox County’s children than ever before. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Knox County now mails over 19,000 books monthly to children under the age of five, representing 73% of the eligible population (based on the 2010 US Census) and a 4% increase since 2013. This fall, the program mailed its 2 millionth book since its launch in 2005.
That means mail carriers are hauling 600-800 more books each month and more parents are cuddling up with their children on a regular basis for some llama drama, goodnight gorillas or little engines with big hearts. Most importantly, it means that more children are entering kindergarten better prepared to learn to read, according to a recent study conducted by Knox County Schools that shows a correlation between enrollment in Imagination Library and improved early literacy test scores.
Recent gains in enrollment may be partially attributed to the Welcome Baby package, a state-wide initiative sponsored by Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam’s office that mails healthy baby tips, including information on the Imagination Library, to every baby born in Tennessee. Local registration efforts rely on partnerships with birthing hospitals, day cares, libraries, and special events. Additionally, all children under age five who are in the Department of Human Services custody in foster care are automatically enrolled in the program.
The local program, administered by the Knox County Public Library and supported by an independent board of advisors, maintains its status as having the highest per capita registration for any urban community in the country.
With increased enrollment comes an increase in costs. Knox County Imagination Library’s board of advisors is charged with raising money to cover the costs of books and mailing. An average monthly invoice for Knox County now runs about $40,000, for an annual expenditure of close to $500,000. Fortunately, the local board has to fund only half the book bill. The Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation grants each county in Tennessee 50% of the total cost of books and mailing. Additionally, Imagination Library of Knox County has received a generous three-year grant from the United Way of Greater Knoxville for $87,000 per year, leaving about $150,000 for the board to raise annually.
Administrative costs of the local program are borne by the Knox County Public Library.
“Many people are confused about the funding model for Imagination Library,” says Bonny Naugher, chair of Knox County Imagination Library. “We love Dolly Parton, and she put together the program in such a way that makes it more affordable for communities to buy in, but each community must pay for their own books and mailing.”