Summer Reading

Bibliotherapy: Or Why We Still Need Libraries

Life's is too short for bad books—enter the Houston Public Library's "matchmaking" service

By Brittanie Shey July 21, 2015

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Bibliotherapy is the idea that books can be “prescribed” for a certain number of ills—that books can make you happier and more emotionally intelligent. The School of Life in London offers a bibliotherapy service with the tagline “Life's is too short for bad books.” But you don't have to travel across the pond for bibliotherapy. Two Houston-area library systems are offering hand-selected book recommendations catered specifically for readers.

Here's how it works: readers fill out an online form with interests, what they're looking for, books and authors they've loved and hated, and number of other options, and a few days later an individualized reading list is hand-compiled and sent by a Houston-area librarian. 

“We don't have the numbers of Amazon or Google, and we couldn't handle that if we did,” said Linda Stevens, coordinator of marketing and fundraising with Harris County Pubic Library. “With the Internet age, libraries are changing, but one thing we've always done well is connect people with books.”

HCPL started its Book Hunters program in November of 2010 and in the time since, librarians have compiled more than 5,000 recommendations. About 50 librarians work as reading list consultants.

The HCPL form includes questions around likes and dislikes, allows you to select genre and book format (e-book, audiobook, print) and book length (short, medium, long). It also allows readers to request books along a sliding scale of sensibilities including humor (a lot, a little, none or don't care) sex, violence, obscene language, pace, mood and more. It's a pretty complex form that allows librarians to really dial into what their readers might want. That profile then gets matched to a librarian whose interests align with the reader.

“We're matchmaking,” Stevens said. “Just like the librarian is matching you to a book, we're also matching you to a librarian.”

From there, the librarian selects the books then, sends an email to the reader with notes on why each book was chosen. HCPL keeps profiles on their readers, so if a reader requests a second reading list, the librarian won't recommend the same book.

Stevens says the librarians sometimes try to encourage people step outside of their reading comfort zone. “They're telling us some things about themselves that can be quite personal. What people don't like is sometimes more important than what they do like,” she said. “Our philosophy is that we recommend 10 books, and the 10th book is a little bit out there.”

Houston Public Library offers a similar service. And while HCPL's form is super in-depth and specific, HPL's form is simple, according to Saima Kadir, virtual library service manager.

“We've offered this service for seven or eight years, and last year we decided to revamp the form to make it shorter and easier to fill out. Since then the popularity of the service has skyrocketed,” she said. “Before we used to get three or four emails a month. Now we're getting 40 to 50.”

A staff of about 15 librarians works on the recommendations, with the goal of answering the emails within a week. “They just love it," she said. "It's one of the reasons they became a librarian."

Kadir said libraries have actually seen a resurgence of usage as the popularity of e-reading devices has grown, since library members can borrow e-books for free. Both HPL and HCPL feature services like Overdrive and Hoopla, which offer free e-books, streaming movies, audio books and more.

Both libraries offer of programs and services that can be tied to personalized reading lists. HPL has author events, books clubs and more. And HCPL publishes reading suggestions each Friday on its Facebook page tied to a current event.

“We have heard a lot about why we need don't need libraries today when we have Google,” Kadir said. “But it's about this, it's about human connection. Especially in our neighborhood libraries, where there's a sense of community.”


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