Brief history of bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy is an ancient practice of reading for therapeutic effect. The existence of ancient inscriptions over libraries in Thebes and Alexandria – that when translated read ‘healing place of the soul’ – suggests that the idea of bibliotherapy goes back to ancient times. The word ‘bibliotherapy’ originates from the Greek words for book, ‘biblion’, and healing, ‘therapeia.’ An American, Samuel Crothers, combined the Greek words in 1916 to describe bibliotherapy as a process in which literature was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.

In its early forms bibliotherapy was used in psychiatric hospitals to treat the mentally ill. By the end of the nineteenth century libraries had become established in many European and American psychiatric hospitals and towards the end of World War I libraries had also become established in many veterans’ hospitals where bibliotherapy was administered to support an increase in demand to treat military veterans suffering emotional trauma.

From the mid-20th century there was a focus on reforming mental hospitals’ institutional processes, which saw the treatment of mental health start to shift care from hospitals to the community. The process of mental health deinstitutionalisation was worldwide, including in the US, UK, Western Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia, and transformed the way people with mental health concerns are supported. With the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care, bibliotherapy began to move away from the hospital environment and into a wide variety of therapeutic, educational and community settings. The use of self-help books, as traditional bibliotherapy in clinical settings, has iterated more recently into using fiction and poetry in community-based settings, facilitated by non-health practitioners. Creative bibliotherapy, sharing imaginative literature, has become a widely used means of promoting general wellbeing.

Creative bibliotherapy programs were first delivered in the United Kingdom (UK) in community settings in 1972 and were prominent in the UK by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Creative bibliotherapy programs were first delivered in the United States in 1991 and Australia in 2010.  Empirical research is beginning to develop a compelling narrative for the use of creative bibliotherapy within a community setting as a person-centred, collaborative group model, providing a foundation to respond to people’s wellbeing needs. Creative bibliotherapy programs provide an accessible, and cost-effective way of filling a non-clinical wellbeing niche within community-based services and programs and strengthen relationships between practitioners within health care and community sectors.

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