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Shelf Help: Bibliotherapy in Libraries

You might have noticed books on a shelf in your public library labelled “bibliotherapy.” You might have read about a bibliotherapy display in a bookstore.

What the heck is this bibliotherapy again? Are you supposed to read books or attend group sessions? Lie on a couch? Would picking up a book help when your mind is wrapped around a problem that you can’t even admit to yourself?

Well, yes and no. You can stretch on your own couch in the safety of your own room and read on your own, as long as the text is uplifting and inspiring, as long as it motivates you to mull over your own issues constructively and you gain insight and perspective from the book.

You may start arguing right there that not all texts are joyful and uplifting. To work their magic, they don’t need to be.

What counts is their effect on you, as you are following the lines, and stop to think about a word, a gesture, a character, or a situation. As you start reflecting on that particular element, you will get involved more in the text and start to get a handle on it––along with your own problem, in the long run.

You can start this journey on your own or you can join a group, even if you feel you don’t want to talk about your inner thoughts when you yourself don’t know what they are.

Rutgers Art Library (Megan C. Lotts)

Guided reading for therapeutic purposes––the traditional definition of bibliotherapy––can help you think and reflect, dissect and combine, and, eventually, mend. To assist you in the background, your “accidental bibliotherapist*,” i.e., a librarian has already put a lot of thought into selecting titles that you may want to check out (pun intended). Moreover, some librarians routinely gather talking points and discussion questions to match a book, a short story, or a poem. You can benefit from these curated resources even if you are hesitant to talk with others.

Whether you are looking for a group discussion or a book club to find like-minded people or you wish to read and contemplate on your own, there are resources to browse, including reading lists, guides, book recommendations, blog posts, book displays, and (of course) your librarian.

Bibliotherapy serves as complementary therapy in many countries. In the UK, for example, a program called Reading Well offers books recommended by health professionals, many of them traditional self-help titles. For more on this program, see Books on Prescription.

We consider “shelf-help” more broadly as we recommend diverse titles in our various guides.

  • Bibliotherapy from Books We Read
  • Books We Read: the original list, mostly print books. Categories include classics, short stories, scifi/fantasy, suspense, memoir, science, non-fiction, and ESL.
  • Books We Read online: ebooks. Categories include classics, non-fiction, popular, graphic novels, streaming, and movie-to-book.
  • Books We Read: Poetry: a selection of resources and why read them.
  • Reading for Recovery: special resources for special audiences––people grappling with addiction, and their families and friends wishing to help.
  • Summer Tales Book Club 2020 and 2021: short stories and poems with questions and talking points.

See our related posts below.

*The phrase “accidental bibliotherapist” was first used by Liz Brewster in Brewster, L. (2009). Reader Development and Mental Wellbeing: The Accidental Bibliotherapist. Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, 22(1), 13–16.