While the word ‘bibliotherapy’ has been in use for almost a hundred years its history is much longer. The concept of bibliotherapy dates back to 300 BC when ancient civilizations placed inscriptions over library entrances that stated that within the building was healing for the soul. The concept links to the philosopher Aristotle, who considered literature had healing benefits, and that reading fiction was a way of treating illness. The early connection to libraries is even traced to William Shakespeare, ‘Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow … ’
The word ‘bibliotherapy’ originates from the Greek words for book ‘biblion’ and healing ‘therapeia.’ An American minister, Samuel Crothers, combined the Greek words in 1916 to describe bibliotherapy as a ‘process in which specific literature, both fiction and non-fiction, was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.’
In its early forms bibliotherapy was used in psychiatric hospitals as a treatment for the mentally ill. By the twentieth century, libraries had become established in many European and American psychiatric hospitals. Towards the end of World War I libraries had become established in many veteran hospitals and bibliotherapy was administered to support an increase in demand to treat military veterans suffering emotional trauma.
Up until mid-20th century bibliotherapy had been mainly used with hospitalised adults to support mental health. An important factor in the evolution of bibliotherapy was the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care in the 1970s. This saw the use of bibliotherapy begin to move away from the hospital environment and into diverse areas of the community including libraries, general medical practice, psychology, criminal justice, nursing, social work, education and occupational therapy. Echoing Crothers description many subsequent definitions and applications are broad, allowing scope for the use of both fiction and non-fiction and is, usually, defined in terms of its purpose. The one thing they all have in common is the use of literature to help people deal with psychological, emotional and social problems.