Julie Walker is one of the founders of bibliotherapy in the UK, and talked us through an introduction to the concept.
Words for Wellbeing define bibliotherapy as “the use of fiction and poetry to support and improve positive outcomes for people with mental health and wellbeing issues”. It effectively codifies something generations of librarians and book lovers have assumed: that reading benefits a person’s mental health, enhances their communication skills and increases their empathy towards others. There’s now an increasing field of research into what these benefits are and a growth in bibliotherapy as an applicable technique.
Julie shared a great example of bibliotherapy in action: book chats. Book chats are similar in format to book club meetings, but crucially there doesn’t need to be a set text which everyone in the group must read. Julie explained that some book club members are put off from attending if they haven’t read the book – so instead of relieving stress, the club itself can become a source of it. Book chats remove that issue by making the group about literature more generally. Attendees are encouraged to talk about books they love or relate to, and we took part in some bibliotherapeutic activities, like randomly picking a few lines of poetry and reading them to the group.
Bibliotherapy is closely linked to writing therapy, so attendees are often encouraged to write their own poetry or prose. Although Words For Wellbeing work predominantly with public libraries and many groups are set up to assist retirees, there are many concepts which could apply just as well to students. Aside from the therapeutic benefits, the activities also help improve communication and social skills, and offer a sense of belonging in a safe environment.
When promoting leisure reading, academic libraries are often challenged by the subject-related nature of their stock. Manchester Met tried to solve this problem by teaming up with Manchester Public Libraries to borrow a temporary allocation of public library books. The Library request titles which will cater to their student audience, with a broad selection of fiction and non-fiction, and in turn help promote public library membership to their students.
Manchester Metropolitan’s James Avison closed the day by reflecting on this initiative, and the various challenges the Library’s Love To Read leisure reading project has faced. Alongside the issue of stock, the team were also challenged by promotional budget and strategy: staff and not the institution had driven the project, so allocation of budget was limited and early efforts were based largely on trial-and-error.
Despite these challenges, the team have been resourceful in the ways in which they promoted the project. The Library’s 2017 Reading Challenge was a great example of low-cost, engaging promotion: 12 challenges to read books on certain themes, printed on cards students could pick up for free in the Library. Love To Read also benefitted from a distinctive and consistent brand which clearly separated it from academic reading.
Feedback from students has been positive, though evaluation of the project is still in its early days.
Discussion between NoWAL attendees was lively and positive in sharing ways in which other university libraries had overcome similar challenges, including linking the initiative to counselling and wellbeing services as part of a wider university-led strategy.