Last month I participated in a bibliotherapy session called On the Road geared toward Hungarians living outside the country. What a great idea, I thought when I saw the invitation. I was not disappointed. For those new to the concept of bibliotherapy, it implies guided reading, including subsequent conversation, for therapeutic purposes. The texts usually serve as talking points that inspire participants to find points to connect with their inner selves and get a better understanding of themselves in the long run.
My interest in bibliotherapy goes back to the Reading for Recovery project, which resulted in a toolkit aiming to provide shelf help to anyone with substance use issues. Librarians often become “accidental bibliotherapists,” borrowing the term coined by Liz Brewster.* In the absence of licensing protocols for bibliotherapy in the United States, librarians must self-educate and share best practices. Even if not running bibliotherapy sessions, librarians are often tasked with creating reading programs, both synchronously and asynchronously, as well as hosting events, which serve therapeutic purposes.
The session On the Road piqued my curiosity with its topic and the novel method of delivery, i.e., over the internet and across several time zones. The session was planned to run for 90 minutes, instead, the small group of six could barely break after two hours. That’s a lot of value for a free session already.
A trained and experienced bibliotherapist, Viktória Tóth lead the session in Hungarian from her home office in Finland. Most expat participants had been living outside Hungary for various lengths of time. We were eager and quick to pick up the pace after the introduction and initial explanation of ground rules, following the text read out aloud by the moderator. My recap intends to preserve the privacy of the conversations.
Viktória came well prepared with prompts appropriate for the topic. The first one was a choice of ten images, all depicting roads in various settings. We were asked to identify with one of them and justify our choices based on where we thought we were “on the road” in our lives. I must admit that I was debating between two pictures. One showed a nice, sandy beach, illustrating the end of my career and how I should just sail off into the sunset. The second one reminded me of the volatility and fragility of the situation where migrant workers, legal and illegal immigrants, and expatriates often find themselves in a xenophobic world. All participants responded with expressing the transient nature of being on the road. Some picked the rocky road leading to a quiet place, while others considered the challenge as an uphill battle, which has a finish line.
The second prompt was a pleasant surprise, a poem I had translated and posted in some of my LibGuides to promote reading. The short poem entitled I read was written by László Darvasi. This text always inspires great discussions of the different reasons people read, pointing out the second commonality among the attendees, i.e., the love of reading and reflecting on texts. As a translator, I find this text extremely difficult to interpret in most languages, due to the fact that the Hungarian grammatical case causalis-finalis can describe a reason, cause, or purpose for something. The pronoun azért can mean “because” or “for” in a sentence, that is I read because or I read in order to. I can only repeat what I said during the session: if you want to get the deepest meaning of a text, try translating it! Then try again, into a different language or for a different audience.
The next text was meant to synthesize the previous discussions. By this time members of this ad hoc group looked very comfortable with the setup, the topic, and the discussion. It felt like we had known each other for a long time, which resulted in sharing some of the innermost concerns about the current stage in life, thoughts that we had not discussed with anyone before or had been hiding from ourselves. Sworn to secrecy, I’ll stop here and spare the details.
What does this tell us about bibliotherapy? The standalone session was actually a demo of a six-session series with the same title, operating as a closed group. First, participants decided to attend because of their desire to connect with others experiencing similar issues, i.e., expats facing identical problems in countries all over the world. No matter if one lives in Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, or Finland, assimilating to a new culture, or deciding not to, will be the hardest process in one’s life.
The second takeaway was that it’s fairly easy to find a common ground with people of similar interests. Just like among runners, common interest develops instant trust through shared experience and common language (the latter, in this case, in the most literal sense). Participants quickly connected due to the first step the moderator asked us to do: changing the default Zoom name to what we would like to be called, including (if we chose) the colloquial form friends in Hungary might have used. A small act of kindness, but, honestly, when was the last time I had a chance to be called that?
Third, the success of a bibliotherapy session has a lot to do with the moderator. Not only a seasoned expat herself, Viktória is coming from a school of bibliotherapists trained in the rigorous, two-year, post-graduate bibliotherapy program at the University of Pécs in Hungary, developed by Judit Béres (a pioneer in the field) and based on the latest theories and best practices in bibliotherapy. The moderator’s demeanor played a significant role in creating a community of people who had not known each other an hour before the session. With her gentle prompts, Viktória managed to get all of us to speak, gently teasing out honest responses, relevant and inspirational for all participants.
This pioneering initiative was made possible through the potential of developing trust in an online environment in the pandemic. After countless Zoom meetings, it looks like there is a great benefit: people got used to the idea of sharing their thoughts, and even feelings, online with a small group of trusted friends. Bibliotherapy might be just one of the winners of these awkward months after all.
*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.