Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.  

Syracuse, New York, launched Imagination Library locally because the international program distributes free books to be read aloud to young children — a key literacy-boosting activity. One bonus: Syracuse’s Le Moyne College offered to rigorously evaluate the program’s local impact.

“It was something we could measure,” says Virginia Carmody, executive director of Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County, the lead organization for Syracuse’s grade-level reading campaign. 

“We want more children ready for school and reading at grade level by third grade. One effective approach to develop strong literacy skills is to inspire the love of reading and learning early. So we launched Imagination Library as part of our broader community literacy plan that is targeted and measurable.” 

Imagination Library mails a new age-appropriate book every month to children from birth to age 5. Begun by singer Dolly Parton in Tennessee, the program has been replicated in more than 1,600 communities and serves about 700,000 children in the United States and beyond, including GLR communities in New York and Arkansas. 

In Syracuse, it has provided more than 50,000 books since 2010 and serves 3,000 children, many from low-income and refugee families. “Some parents tell us these are their only books,” says Carmody. “They feel their children are more prepared for school and are getting into a reading routine.”

A local Imagination Library generally involves a partnership between Parton’s Dollywood Foundation and the community, with shared costs and responsibilities. In Syracuse, the annual community cost is $30 per child. Major local funders include the Central New York Community Foundation and the Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation.

The number of Syracuse children served could soon double, if $120,000 in county funding is approved in fall 2014. In the spring, $50,000 in city funding was approved after a report was released showing that only half of the county’s kindergartners arrive fully prepared.

The Le Moyne team has produced the first publication in an academic peer-reviewed journal of empirical research assessing the program’s impact. They found that being enrolled longer in the program makes parents more likely to read frequently to their children, a key way to stimulate language development and school readiness.  

Comparing parents participating in the program for four months or less vs. more than four months, those reading three times a week or more to their children jumped from 59 to 85 percent. The percentage reading daily doubled from 29 to 59.  

Results garnered via a parent survey also suggest the program may help overcome gaps that exist among groups. Being African American or foreign-born made a child less likely to be read to daily. But after a few extra months in Imagination Library, these groups caught up and children had nearly the same likelihood of being read to daily. 

The ongoing evaluation has helped attract local funders. And GLR campaigns in Buffalo and rural Madison County that also participate in Imagination Library are being evaluated similarly with Le Moyne’s assistance. 

Over 48 Syracuse organizations and agencies, including the United Way, partner to provide the program. In addition to the Dollywood Foundation’s guidance, Syracuse added its own touches, such as the evaluation. A local hospital enrolls newborns and children during clinic visits, producing 40 percent of the participants, as do county agencies serving low-income families. 

“It’s become a way to organize our community partners and rally them around literacy outcomes,” adds Carmody.  

Syracuse also has provided more than $150,000 to local providers of high-quality family literacy programs. These “literacy champions” help parents learn how to read aloud effectively. One effort involves the local zoo and library providing an animal-themed program combining reading and live animals.  

“We want our families that are already receiving books to be engaged and very comfortable in libraries,” says Carmody. “More and more young families come to the library regularly now, building that culture of literacy early on.”

For more information, contact Virginia Carmody at 315-428-8129 or

Photos: Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County; Publication Date: Summer 2014 

For more information and to nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at

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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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  • This sounds like a great project and it's an added benefit to have program evaluation. I have a question, tho: since the initiative is two-pronged, book distribution AND family literacy with literacy champions, how do you account for the influence of the family literacy prong, which is supporting parents to read to their children? Thank you.
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