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  • Updated.jpg 28 November 2015


See also Consumer health | Information prescriptions | Information therapy | Mindfulness in medicine‎

Bibliotherapy is defined as "...the use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program ...designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader's own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised." — ABC-CLIO Online

Bibliotherapy (synonyms or similar terms: clinical bibliotherapy or bibliocounselling) has been described as "using books to heal" and "... the guided use of reading, always with a therapeutic outcome in mind" (Katz & Watt, 1992). According to Tukhareli, a health librarian, bibliotherapy is the "...intentional use of the therapeutic potential of literature in a variety of clinical and creative schemes." Bibliotherapy has also been defined as "... the therapeutic use of books in the treatment of illnesses or personal problems" (Stanley, 2002). In fact, the use of books in medicine dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when their purpose was to provide therapeutic benefits. (The ancient Greeks felt literature was psychologically and spiritually vital and posted signs at library entrances that readers were entering a "healing place for the soul".) Today, the use of books on their own or in conjunction with other therapies is part of the work of many social workers, psychologists and mental health professionals. A related therapeutic area for health librarians is called information therapy.

Bibliotherapy is a form of patient education in health libraries, and behaviour modification and communicating with patients, families and children who may not be able to express their emotions freely. Some studies reveal that comic book therapy - a specific type of bibliotherapy - is effective for encouraging patients to express their feelings. Various psychological benefits are associated with sharing personal stories especially when patients are aided in processing memories and complex feelings. The evidence-base in bibliotherapy continues to grow but is smaller than for other types of psycho-cognitive therapies. Bibliotherapy is really both an art and science; as such, there is impetus to conduct more rigorous research to support its clinical application (see references below). At an individual level, bibliotherapy involves the identification of life challenges (loss, crises, abandonment), managing personal finances, dealing with the end of a relationship, divorce or death of someone. Reading on these topics can provide considerable insight into how they affect our emotional health.

Bibliotherapy should not be viewed as simply reading for its own sake as it can be partially curative for a host of ills. Conversely, bibliotherapy should not be viewed as a replacement for psychotherapy. If you suffer from serious physical or mental problems ie., emotional distress or depression; finding yourself unable to perform activities, or engaging in destructive habits, please consult a physician or a therapist.


Bibliotherapy is from biblia = book and therapia = healing. The use of reading materials for help in solving personal problems or for psychiatric therapy date back to the early 20th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, bibliotherapy was used in settings other than mental health institutions and the American Library Association formed its first committee on bibliotherapy in 1939.

Dr. Sadie Peterson Delaney (see NYPL Finding Aid), one of the librarian pioneers in bibliotherapy, managed the Veterans Administration Hospital Library in Tuskegee, Alabama. Before assuming the post of Chief Librarian at the Veterans Hospital in 1923, she began her career at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library in 1920. There, she found immigrants and troubled children could be helped by using books as therapy.

Book therapy was also used as a form of patient care for soldiers after WWII during recuperation from war-related injuries. In psychiatric institutions, a number of reading groups flourished during the 1950s which kept patients occupied and provided structure to their daily routines. Bibliotherapy has been used to develop children's confidence for many years, and is viewed by some parents as a way to discuss issues relating to school, peer pressure and family dynamics.

At a basic level, bibliotherapy consists of the selection of reading materials for other people, what public librarians refer to as reader's advisory. The idea of providing reading advice springs from a basic need to steer other people towards good stories, and a desire to communicate through great literature and art. Grieving children, for example, may decide to read (or be read to) about some complex issues or feelings they are dealing with related to the death of someone. For children who are read to, the world is opened up by books and ideas, and may help to teach them about other people and cultures. This form of learning will naturally teach children to be more sensitive to the plight of others.

Bibliotherapy has evolved considerably over time but still focuses on books that are selected to address a specific issue. In health libraries, bibliotherapy is part of providing consumer health information and patient education services. It is used by health professionals to provide diet and nutritional advice, tips about coping with surgery and treatment in hospitals and seen as self-help "prescriptions". The idea of using books to help patients cope and make their way through the health system is popular among health librarians, and can be used for all age groups.


The implementation of bibliotherapy, even in its most rudimentary form, necessitates some understanding of how it works. Health librarians might want to begin by reading the recent systematic review by Fanner & Urquhart. In 2000, Adams and Pitre claimed that reading books gives patients opportunities to learn how to relate to others and their lived experiences. In the therapeutic setting, bibliotherapy is a two-way process that allows patient and therapist to develop a good working relationship. One of the underlying factors in bibliotherapy is that patients may be unaware of what motivates them, the behaviours and emotions that are behind their actions, and what troubles them. For therapists that use bibliotherapy, it is vital to know about its benefits and limitations. Through its effective use, therapists can use bibliotherapy to elicit underlying unconscious issues for the patient, where they can be discussed out in the open.

Books and literature are important sources of symbolism, and their messages are thought to be decoded and somatized by patients, according to the theory of bibliotherapy. Fiction writers and authors have an uncanny ability to examine and evoke human emotions and motivations in their writing. Often, their goal is to recreate the experience of life within a certain time period. In fact, good literature is a true reflection of life, and memorable characters are often relatable and critical to believability in stories, especially when they are supposed to be reflections of real people. This is why words, stories and books are so powerful, and potentially so therapeutic in the medical setting.

In bibliotherapy, children are often asked to draw pictures and discuss what they identify with in the books they are reading. Books can be also used to engage children on subjects which they may be hesitant to discuss. In Canada and the United Kingdom, bibliotherapy will focus on the foundational texts in literature, or subjects that are particularly relevant to children or teens. Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet", for example, is typically read during grades 8 and 9 in Canadian junior high schools. Part of the rationale for this is that Romeo is 15, and Juliet is 13. Teenagers are more likely to identify with and relate to those characters and their feelings because they are so close in age.

Sometimes classical literature can be supplemented with the more popular, Broadway versions of plays. It is now expected that school librarians will be able to find texts that target specific cultures, and age groups, along desirable themes. In elementary schools, the Berenstain Bears books are used to target particular behaviours and situations encountered by kids. Some division of opinion exists as to whether bibliotherapy needs to take place within the therapeutic setting in order for it to be considered therapeutic. Some therapists take the view that using bibliotherapy is a professional skill while others see no reason why children can't derive considerable benefits from their parents selecting meaningful reading. In any case, parents can engage in a very intimate activity with their children by reading to them and by discussing the social and cultural issues that arise from the books they read together.

Some applications of bibliotherapy

  • To develop an individual’s self-concept
  • To increase an individual’s understanding of human behaviour or motivations
  • To foster an honest self-appraisal
  • To provide ways for individuals to find interests outside of themselves
  • To relieve emotional or mental pressure
  • To show individuals that they are not the only ones with problems
  • To show a person that there is more than one solution to a problem
  • To help a person discuss a problem more freely
  • To help a person plan a constructive course of action to solve a problem

Key websites

  • Bibliotherapy is ...the use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader's own experience.
  • Clinical bibliotherapy is implemented by trained helping professionals in dealing with significant emotional or behavioral problems
  • Developmental bibliotherapy may be used by teachers, librarians or lay helpers to facilitate normal development and self-actualization with an essentially healthy population
  • Bibliotherapy is the therapeutic use of books. Think of it as "reading to heal." It may occur within the context of traditional therapy, but it may also be practiced by individuals. Individual bibliotherapy for the purpose of dealing with grief is the focus of this wiki. Disclaimer: ...Bibliotherapy is not for everyone, and it is not a substitute for traditional forms of therapy. If you are suffering with a serious physical or mental illness; if you have thoughts of harming yourself or others; or if you are unable function in your normal activities, seek treatment from a professional immediately..."
  • Books on Prescription will enable GPs and mental health professionals prescribe cognitive behavioural therapy books by visiting a library
  • obtain books to help understand and manage conditions from depression to chronic pain'
  • Comicspedia is an online database of hundreds of individual comic book summaries. Each summary is tagged with psychological themes that aid in selecting specific books to read with others who identify with those themes, which can lead to stronger relationships.
  • The use of books for therapeutic purposes is known as “bibliotherapy”. Self-help books have been used in this way for many years. They are used by people who want to learn how to manage their own emotional and psychological problems for themselves. It is a useful start in treating mild and moderate depression, anxiety and panic and some other mental health problems.
  • Read To Connect is a non-profit organization that offers creative bibliotherapy sessions to groups and individuals in Toronto, Ontario.
  • Bibliotherapy is an expressive therapy that uses an individual's relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. Bibliotherapy is often combined with writing therapy. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression. These results have been shown to be long-lasting.


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