MSU Social Scientist evaluates Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

June 28, 2019 - Liz Schondelmayer

Dolly Parton is not only a country music icon, but also the founder of the international children’s reading program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Since its founding in 1995, this program has been well-received by parents and teachers, but the benefits of enrolling children in the program had not been evaluated by researchers until very recently.

Lori Skibbe, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development of Family Studies in the Michigan State University College of Social Science, researched the impact the program had on children’s language and literacy skills. Her study, which was published in April, found that the program had a small – yet significant – positive impact on children’s development in these areas.

What is the Imagination Library?

The Imagination Library is a national program that provides children with one book every month from birth until they begin kindergarten, with the goal of providing each enrolled child with a full library of books by the time they begin school. The program starts with “The Little Engine that Could” and ends with “Look Out, Kindergarten, Here I Come.”

Counties, libraries, churches and other neighborhood organizations can choose to join the program and distribute the books to participating families. There are currently 50 distributors and over 61,000 children enrolled in the program in Michigan.

Imagination Library’s impressive impact

Skibbe’s study focused specifically on one participating Michigan county and compared the language and literacy skills of kindergarteners who enrolled in the program versus those who did not. Skill development was measured by tests directly administered by schools within the county. Test results showed that skills such as letter recognition, phonetic understanding and rhyming ability were significantly more developed in children who had participated in the Imagination Library program.

“The effect was small, but notable,” explained Skibbe. “Results showed us that this program was definitely worth the county’s investment.”

While past studies collected parents’ and teachers’ perspectives of Imagination Library, Skibbe’s study was the first to evaluate the program’s impact on participating children. Given the program’s relatively simple set-up and implementation, Skibbe found it encouraging to see that it is actually making a difference.

“I was curious to see what kind of impact a low-resource intervention like this one could have. Most book reading programs rely on trained personnel, like coaches for families, that take a lot more time, energy and resources to implement. To see a program as low-maintenance as this one have a positive effect was exciting,” said Skibbe.

Find more information on the Imagination Library here.