Dolly Parton donated 130 million books to children, and the number continues to climb. As an award-winning singer and songwriter, Parton is well known for her work in the entertainment industry. But she’s less well known for her philanthropic work—especially when it comes to books.
Parton was born in a one-room cabin in Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children. She described her family as “dirt poor,” and although her father was business savvy he could neither read nor write. As Parton achieved more and more success, she began to think of ways to help others, particularly in poor rural areas like where she grew up.
As Parton said, “When I was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee, I knew my dreams would come true. I know there are children in your community with their own dreams…The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.” And so in 1995, she launched Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in her childhood home of Sevier County, Tennessee.
The idea for the Library was simple: because a lot of families don’t have the means to purchase books, each child who joins the program is mailed an age-appropriate book every month from birth to five years. If the parents sign the child up right after birth, that’s a total of 60 books by the time the child turns six. And multiple children from the same family can sign up—meaning that a four-child family could potentially receive 240 free books, and a 12-child family like the one Parton grew up in could receive a staggering 720 free books.
Families responded to Parton’s generosity. By 2003, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library had mailed one million books. In 2004, the program expanded to the entire state of Tennessee. Nationwide coverage followed soon after. The program launched in Canada in 2006 followed by the United Kingdom in 2007, Australia in 2013 and the Republic of Ireland in 2019. With growth like that, it’s no wonder Dolly Parton donated 130 million books to children.
As government lockdowns during the coronavirus crisis drag on, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library has started a new program of weekly bedtime story videos. “Goodnight With Dolly” launched on 2 April, with Parton herself reading the books. Regarding this new program, Parton said: “This is something I have been wanting to do for quite a while, but the timing never felt quite right. I think it is pretty clear that now is the time to share a story and to share some love.” She couldn’t be more right, and during this crisis people all over the world are willingly helping each other.
One of the objections often raised to a purely voluntary society is that not enough people will voluntarily pay for things like public libraries, and so poor children will never be able to read books. As of this writing, there are over 1.5 million children registered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and over 133 million books have been mailed. Parton’s amazing example not only shows that there are other methods to meet literary needs than the archaic model of the public library, but that those needs can be met by people acting voluntarily.