A prescription for books

I’d heard about Britain’s National Health Service planning to prescribe library books to people diagnosed with what The Guardian calls “mild to moderate mental health concerns.” But until I saw an article about the scheme on Library Journal‘s website, I didn’t realize it’s also a program designed to bring another patient back to full health: the UK library system, which has been wounded by recession austerity measures.

According to The Independent, “200 libraries closed last year with reports of a further 300 facing closure or to become run by volunteers this year.”  So it’s a program covered by the health budget that keep librarians working and will boost both public and government awareness of the benefits of libraries. Brilliant!

Two organizations are behind this: The Reading Agency, “a charity with a  mission is to inspire more people to read more” and the  Society of Chief Librarians, “a local government association” of UK library directors. The Reading Agency notes the “backing” of organizations of British doctors and nurses, including psychological and psychiatric societies, on its website. Surely patients appreciate taking a prescription to the library and receiving the book they need at no cost.

As the media have pointed out, there is science behind the program, although the study most referenced, from the journal PLOS ONE, appears to focus on self-help books and the prescription list includes novels, poetry, and nonfiction as well (some titles are listed in The Independent‘s article). I have no medical or scientific expertise, but I’ve certainly “self-medicated” with favorite or uplifting books when I’m feeling blue, and my grandmother, who was quite healthy for most of her 96 years, swore by mysteries as the cure for feeling down.  So I suspect there’s something to this, and I will be very interested to see how it works. I’ve always believed reading good literature is healing — it feeds the soul, filling basic human needs to think about something greater than ourselves, to explore big ideas, and to experience beauty.

That said, I can’t imagine a formal “book prescription” program in America. Even at the local level our health care system is so fragmented, it seems unlikely a coordinated national effort could take off. I also wonder if doctors here would fear lawsuits if reading didn’t benefit the patient as hoped. But individual doctors already recommend books, and sometimes libraries. A patron recently asked me for help finding books about her mental health diagnosis, and said money is tight so her doctor sent her to the library. I’m glad libraries are there for everyone who needs them.