A Library of Their Own

For young children, a book is so much more than just a gift

For Elaine Jones, the evidence is clear. Books in homes help nurture and grow children’s minds. As the Youth Services Manager at the Edmonton Public Library (EPL), she has been at the forefront of early literacy outreach for well over a decade. In the past, EPL has participated in a number of programs that get books into the homes of families with young children. Jones has seen the impact they make.

“That first five years is really critical in terms of learning and setting the foundation for their lifelong achievement and school success,” she says.

So, in March 2022, EPL announced its partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and the start of their Ready. Set. READ! program, which gifts books to families with children in that critical 0-5 age group. Each participant receives one age-appropriate book, selected by experts, every month until the child graduates from the program at the age of five. With the Imagination Library’s partnership, EPL can now get books in the homes of more children than it could have before.

The Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library handles the sourcing and shipment of the books. “They negotiate the steep discounts, they select the books, and then they ship them out directly and maintain a database as well,” says Jones. But she says EPL still has to find the funds for the books and organize the outreach for families.

This is why the program is always seeking funding and why partners like Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) have been critical to the program’s success. Jones says ECF is “well respected” and that when people hear about the organization’s support, it goes a long way in getting others to donate.

ECF has supported Ready. Set. READ! for two years including $50,000 in funding in 2023.

“We understand how vital early childhood literacy is at the Foundation,” says Tina Thomas, ECF’s CEO. “Many of us have children of our own and we know firsthand the richness that reading brings to people’s lives and the value that literacy brings to creating a society where everyone can learn and be successful.”

For EPL, this support has been key to the program’s sustainability. “It’s quite significant because we need ongoing funding,” says Jones. “We don’t want to pull [children] in for a year and then say, ‘Oh, we ran out of money to support this.’”

The steady funding helps keep the books coming to families like the Glukhas. Lilia Glukha, a mother of two, says her family’s reading journey started with EPL. After seeing a poster advertising the program at the Londonderry Branch, Glukha signed both of her children up. Roughly eight weeks later, the family received their first book, The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.

“We try to instill the love for books and reading in our children. We feel that through reading, our children develop their imagination, creativity and new dreams,” says Glukha.

While families can see the impact of these programs first-hand, there is also strong research to back it up. In a 2020 study in Review of Educational Research that researched book giveaways, the study found they resulted in “more interest in reading and children scoring higher on measures of literacy-related skills” both before and after they started school.

Another 2014 study from Sheffield Hallam University found strong evidence that suggests book gifting can positively affect children’s enthusiasm for reading, and parent’s personal attitudes on sharing books as well. The study also found supporting evidence that these programs are more effective when “based on repeated gifts rather than one-off events,” just like the program at EPL.

Jones says the Ready. Set. READ! program doesn’t start and end with a book in a child’s hands. The Library works with the families and encourages them to get involved with classes and events at their local libraries. For families like the Glukhas, it’s the start of a lifelong relationship with a community resource that they can grow with and rely on throughout their parenting journey.

“We found the Family Literacy Programs. They are amazing,” says Glukha. “We were glad to attend these programs every week. We saw huge benefits in our son’s development.”

While the program has been a large success with over 5,000 families having now received nearly 16,000 books, there still isn’t enough funding to reach every child in the 0-5 age group. EPL has currently put a pause on intake due to high demand. Jones says the feeling is “bittersweet.”

This story comes from the Fall 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full issue.