You may have heard of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, but it’s unlikely you know its full history, scope and impact, as detailed in the tidy little documentary The Library That Dolly Built. And because the film revolves around Parton, who has honed humble glamour to an art, it’s an infomercial that will make you feel better about the world — a worthwhile mission in the depths of 2020.
It’s called a “library” but it’s really a service: The nonprofit Parton established sends a book a month to any child who signs up, from birth to age 5 — currently totaling more than 1.3 million books each month — on the theory that parents will read them aloud to the kids. The result is parental bonding, early reading interest and, eventually, a shelf full of beloved stories.
The Imagination Library has been around for 25 years, reaches all 50 states and some foreign nations and insists on local involvement in every community it serves. It’s hard not to be impressed, even though the documentary, directed by University of Tennessee media professor Nick Geidner, lets the interview subjects and the facts speak for themselves, no hype added. Geidner includes lots of parents and children from across the nation in the story, as well as some of the selected books’ authors, so it’s not all education insiders — although even the “experts” in the film seem as folksy as Parton herself, perhaps because a lot of them also come from east Tennessee.
Parton makes a few appearances — as one person observes, “Dolly provides the pixie dust” — and Geidner includes a picture book’s worth of Dolly bio as well, including making the point that Whitney Houston’s megahit cover of Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was a huge boon to the library’s funding. In a documentary season chock-full of consequential conspiracies, crimes and disasters, The Library That Dolly Built may be slim, but it’s a pleasure to be immersed in untarnished goodness for an hour or so.
Available to rent via FineArtsTheatre.com