A Feeling for Books

Posted Monday, November 22, 2010 - 09:00
Therapeutic connections to library practice

What’s not to like about bibliotherapy? Bringing readers to books, whether fiction or nonfiction, that respond to personal problems and promote well-being seems like powerful testimony to the notion that reading changes lives. Bibliotherapy has been described as an extension of readers’ advisory, a specialized kind of information provision, or even a means of healing. Seldom is it fully acknowledged as the province of another profession, yet psychologists train to use and evaluate the merits of bibliotherapy. Understanding another field’s ideas about bibliotherapy can aid librarians as they consider how—or even whether—bibliotherapy is truly the province of the librarian.

Librarians and library school faculty variously attribute the origins of bibliotherapy to the Oct. 15, 1939 Library Journal article, “Can There Be a Science of Bibliotherapy?” or to Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop (1919). Researchers in psychology and gender studies, however, trace the concept back to 17th-century spiritual titles that American colonists counted on to guide them, which gave way to a burgeoning self-help literature that promised health and wealth beginning in the early 1800s. The advice guides of that era never used the term “bibliotherapy” but sold books that promised advice and self-improvement.

The hype of self-help

One of the scholars who focuses on the long tradition of self-help literature and its present-day forms is Patti Lou Watkins, associate professor of women’s studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis. When I contacted Watkins, editor with George A. Clum, psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic University Institute and State University in Blacksburg, of Handbook of Self-Help Therapies, my first question was, essentially, whether librarians who tout bibliotherapy as a library service are practicing without a license. Certainly, other writers in LIS have suggested the need for policy guidance in this area, mirroring professional limits on tax and medical information that respect those matters as beyond librarians’ expertise. Watkins concurs with these concerns. Calling librarians’ interests in bibliotherapy positive and their concern for patrons “very admirable,” Watkins nonetheless suggested that matching adolescents with books on eating disorders or any other condition in the hopes of encouraging their recovery was no sure thing.

Bibliotherapy, as clinical psychologists such as Watkins understand it, “is usually synonymous with self-help and with self-help in the form of books.” She noted that “It takes a variety of forms.” Self-help genres may include nonfiction works guiding readers in specific psychological therapies, inspirational autobiographies, and even fiction. The last, however, is an area whose effectiveness is least known.

“You don’t know that the author’s ways of coping are healthy or actually helpful,” she cautioned. “There’s psychological research that often runs counter to the information in books by non-experts.” When books fail to make people feel better, they may not pursue further care. Watkins said, “Psychologists are concerned that people will engage with these books and find them not helpful, then refuse other help because of it.”

She cited research on post-traumatic stress disorder showing that the dramatic approaches of confrontation and discussion so often featured in narratives on distress are not always appropriate. “There’s no single rule of what’s helpful or safe. Some of these things may make it worse,” Watkins noted. Further, she observed, “People may have many different presentations of distress.”

The gold standard that Watkins advises is selecting “books based on empirically validated solutions.” She noted that the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies lists sound titles in its newsletter and may make these recommendations available via its website in the future. Her final recommendation: “Someone may like to read emotionally laden books, but let’s just not call it bibliotherapy.”

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