cropped-view-of-girl-reading-drinking-tea Graphics courtesy of Good TherapyOpens in new window

Bibliotherapy comes from the Greek words biblio (papyrus roll or book) and therapeia (curing, healing).

Bibliotherapy involves the use of books or other media to help people express emotions, gain insight, or find appropriate solutions to problems.

Trained helpers and laypeople use both fiction and nonfiction books to help people address issues through bibliotherapy. The healing and restorative powers of reading have been long known. An epigraphOpens in new window inscribed on the library at Alexandria Opens in new windowaround 300BC read “medicine for the mind,” while the Greek library at Thebes was dedicated to the “healing of the soul.”

Records of books being prescribed as treatment appear as early as 1272, when patients at the Al-Mansur Hospital in Cairo were prescribed from the Koran. Throughout the 18th century, libraries were establidhed in psychiatric hospitals throughout Europe.

The term bibliotherapy was first used by Reverend Samuel McChord CrothersOpens in new window in the Atlantic MonthlyOpens in new window in 1916. The earliest definition of bibliotherapy appeared in the 1941 edition Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (Jack & Ronan, 2008). Early in the 20th century, bibliotherapy was prescribed as calming reading material or diversions to treat World War I veterans and patients in sanitariums.

In the 1930s, psychiatrist William MenningerOpens in new window established an experimental clinical bibliotherapy program at the Menninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas. Mental hygiene literature was prescribed for patient education, recreation, encouragement, and to integrate patients into therapeutic reading groups (Dysart-Gale, 2008).

  • Developmental bibliotherapy deals with common developmental issues and situations,
  • while clinical bibliotherapy addresses more serious mental health concerns.

Benefits of Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy may be a means of increasing client engagement in the therapeutic process or of promoting clients taking more responsibility for their own healing. It can be used for psychoeducation (to teach about a specific condition or situation, e.g., depression or divorce), to promote creativity, for emotional release, to teach social skills or values, and to treat various mental health symptoms and disorders.

Bibliotherapy may be a useful part of therapy when dealing with various issues, including depressionOpens in new window, anxietyOpens in new window, grief or bereavementOpens in new window, abuse, alcoholism or substance abuseOpens in new window, family issues, marital issues/intimacy, divorce, coping with chronic medical issues, or disability.

It may be recommended by a mental health therapist to encourage self-help, enhance therapy sessions, or in response to client requests for reading material. Bibliotherapy may be a cost-effective and efficient way to provide therapy. For example, it may be useful in rural areas or other areas with limited access to mental health resources (Adams & Pitre, 2000).

Books have been prescribed as calming material or diversions for patients in hospitals or institutions. They have also been prescribed as a means for clients to identify with the main characters of stories, release emotions, help to normalize their feelings or situations, develop coping strategies and problem-solving skills, promote new ways of interacting, or give a new direction or meaning in life (Gladding & Gladding, 1991).

Bibliotherapy has been used to treat various populations (e.g., children and adolescents, senior citizens, people with disabilities) and settings (e.g., schools, mental health institutions). It can be used by teachers, school counselors, and school psychologists to help children deal with bullying, learn social skills, or contend with learning disabilities.

Early on, librarians took an active role in prescribing reading materials for patients in hospitals and institutions. Starting in the 1930s, physicians attempted to exert more control over the bibliotherapeutic process, regarding the role of librarians as that of assistants to physicians.

Physicians wanted to maintain control over the entire process, from choice of reading material prescribed to evaluation of results. Effectiveness of the therapy was impressionistic and was mostly assessed through case studies.

By the 1950s, bibliotherapy was no longer the sole realm of physicians. Bibliotherapy is used by mental health counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, librarians, teachers, and parents.

Bibliotherapy has been widely used but poorly researched, with concerns about the methodology and conclusions drawn by bibliotherapy research.

Different researchers have reached conflicting conclusions about the appropriateness, efficacy, and risks of bibliotherapy (Dysart-Gale, 2008). Many books recommended by therapists promote therapeutic techniques that are not evidence based. Therapists should evaluate books (and any techniques or claims without empirical support) carefully before making recommendations.

While bibliotherapy can be prescribed in a self-help modality, some bibliotherapists state that it should be guided (with a trained therapist or counselor or as an adjunct to other types of therapy). Interpreting reading with the help of a therapist may involve activities such as journaling, group discussion, art therapy, or role-play.

Bibliotherapy may be a part of a program of cognitive-behavior therapyOpens in new window. It is crucial that therapists monitor clients’ perceptions and reactions to recommended books to see if they are helpful or at least ensure that recommended books are not harmful (Adams & Pitre, 2000).

See also:
  1. Adams, S.J., & Pitre, N. L. (2000). Who uses bibliotherapy and why? A survey from an inderserviced area. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 45, 645 – 649.
  2. Crothers, S.M. (1916). A literary clinic. Atlantic Monthly, 118, 291 – 301.
  3. Dysart-Gale, D. (2008). Lost in translation: Bibliotherapy and evidence-based medicine. Journal of Medical Humanities, 29, 33 – 43.
  4. Galt, J. M. (1846). The treatment of insanity. New York: Harper and Bros.
  5. Gladding, S. T., & Gladding, C. (1991). The ABC of bibliotherapy for school counselors. School Counselor, 39 (1), 7 – 13.
  6. Jack, S. J. & Ronan, K. R. (2008). Bibliotherapy: Practice and research. School Psychology International, 29, 161 – 182.