Books as Therapy

I think it’s time for another post about bibliotherapy – the practice of using books as tools for improving, promoting or maintaining mental health. Wellness and mental health are extremely important, with our lives getting busier and busier, and stress increasing with every new addition to our calendars.

Reading helps us escape from the pressures of everyday life

Is there anything more satisfying than recommending a book that someone else reads and enjoys? I absolutely love those moments. Readers’ advisory is not bibliotherapy, but if finding someone who likes the same books as we do warms our hearts, imagine the thrill of prescribing a book that helps someone on such a foundational level as their mental wellbeing.

In her Guardian article, Move over Freud: literary fiction is the best therapy, Salley Vickers breaks it down for us, spelling out some social problems (‘chronic loneliness and isolation’) and a therapeutic solution that involves reading: “reading in groups . . . significantly ‘improves self-confidence and self-esteem.'”

The Conversation has a great article about the history of bibliotherapy, which came into its own after World War I. Many returning soldiers were so traumatized from their experiences that they had a difficult time re-adjusting to civilian life; but prescribed reading helped many sufferers to work through their trauma. I know I have written about her before, but one of my heroes is Sadie Peterson Delaney, who pioneered bibliotherapy, and worked very closely with veterans as well as children.

Image courtesy of The Steampunk Home

On the other hand, bibliotherapy is still an imprecise science. A book that one person connects with might not be helpful to someone else. In their article, 5 Books That Will Make You Happier, According to Bibliotherapists Good Housekeeping sites therapists who recommend The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt as a good book to read if you are feeling pessimistic about the future. I found that book very depressing and not at all positive or uplifting, so in my opinion that’s an inappropriate recommendation for someone who is already feeling pessimistic. This article leads me to believe that there could be quite a margin of error in the practice of bibliotherapy, but I suppose that could be said about many things. Overall, I still love the idea and am eager to connect with someone who has been an official participant in bibliotherapy.

Is there anyone out there who would like to share a books-as-therapy experience? I would love to hear your thoughts!


Bibliotherapy is a concept that was brand new to me two and a half years ago when I began my degree in Library & Information Science. But after writing a short paper on its pioneer, Sadie Peterson Delaney, it is now a subject dear to my heart.

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Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889-1958) single-handedly pioneered and established the concept of bibliotherapy. She was tireless in her efforts using books to help the disabled, the mentally ill and the blind. She began her library career in 1920 at the New York Public Library and was committed to community outreach. She worked with children from all backgrounds and while she was there, developed an interest in helping the blind, so she learned both Braille and Moonpoint, a simpler version of embossed reading developed by William Moon in 1847. (Gubert, 1993)

In 1824 Delaney moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and stayed there until her death in 1958. While there, she was the chief librarian of the US Veterans’ Administration Hospital. When she arrived the library had 200 volumes and within one year, they had 4,000. Interestingly, some of the books she introduced first were fairy tales. She is quoted as saying, “there seemed no books suitable for mental patients,”(Gubert, 1993 p. 125) as though fairy tales were. Ms. Peterson clearly knew what she was doing, however, as she earned numerous domestic and international citations and recognitions, including selection by the Mitre Chambers in London, England as one of America’s important women in 1934. As a direct result of her many published articles, the ALA (American Library Association) formed its first committee studying bibliotherapy in 1939. (Finding Aid for Sadie Peterson Delaney Papers 1921-1958. Retrieved from:

Her aim was to aid wounded, crippled veterans who were bed-ridden and had no way of moving past the horrors they had endured during the first World War. Delaney even had books projected onto the ceiling for those who were completely immobile (Gubert, 1993). The ALA has a definition of the word on its website followed by over a page of articles on the topic and its wide range of possible patients, from troubled children to mentally ill adults. (Retrieved from

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Bibliotherapy has not yet reached its full potential. It is far from mainstream, and the average person on the street has never heard of it (please correct me if I’m wrong!!). But, there have been some articles written about it, and here is one from the BBC, published on January 6, 2015: Bibliotherapy – Can you read yourself happy?

The Verve Academy: Bibliotherapy – A Novel Cure to Stress is a good article about a practicing bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud.

Mark’s Daily Apple wrote a good article on the concept entitled, Bibliotherapy: The Power of Books in 2011.

So when you’re feeling stressed or if you think you might benefit from some therapy, don’t rule out bibliotherapy!