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Feature 02 Nov 17

Bulgarians Get Help to Read the Blues Away

Little known in Bulgaria until 2015, bibliotherapy has since gained popularity and more than 130 consultants across the country now use literary works as aides in counselling for mood-related conditions.

Daniel Penev
Photo: Pixabay

People feeling lonely, frustrated or depressed as a result of abrupt changes or tragic events oftentimes see themselves as sick and turn to psychologists or psychotherapists who, in turn, are likely to prescribe them medicines.

However, if they consult librarians with bibliotherapy expertise, they will get a list of books that match their personality traits, reading capabilities, social background, and psychological needs.

Soon they will discover that they can defeat loneliness with the help of, for example, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, recover from the loss of a relative or a friend with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, or boost their self-confidence with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

Bibliotherapy, an increasingly popular set of techniques used to treat various conditions, made its official debut in Bulgaria in the second half of 2015 courtesy of a small project in the town of Stara Zagora. 

As part of the project, led by the regional library and partner organisations and supported by the Global Libraries- Bulgaria Foundation, ten librarians went through a special training course to become the first bibliotherapy consultants in Bulgaria.

Two years later, the bibliotherapy community in Bulgaria comprises close to 150 consultants who have participated in a total of 11 training courses in nine towns.

Inspired by the success of its idea, Stara Zagora regional library hosted the first national meeting of bibliotherapy consultants on October 24-25.

“[We can now say] we have bibliotherapy in Bulgaria,” Doncho Donev, a psychologist from the Institute for Contemporary Psychology in the town and one of the two trainers leading the courses for bibliotherapy consultants, told BIRN after the event.

Bibliotherapy emerged as a practice in the early 20th century, although its roots go much farther into the past. American essayist Samuel Crothers coined the term in a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article by taking the Greek word for book, “biblion”, and combining it with “therapy”.

At its core, bibliotherapy is a communication-based process in which consultants harness the power of literature and psychology to help patients deal with conditions such as depression, low confidence, and unhealthy relationships. 

Bibliotherapy, however, is more than just choosing books for someone to read, Donev insisted. “Reading is a wonderful experience, but it is not enough on its own,” he cautioned.

What lies at the heart of the therapeutic process is the open communication between consultants and readers, he explained.

Dima Mihailova and Olga Klisurova, two of the ten participants in the first bibliotherapy course, agree with Donev. 

Mihailova, a librarian at the Stara Zagora library, explained that bibliotherapy consultants usually start by interviewing people who need support and then assign them two or three works of fiction reflecting their psychological state.

Once they have read the books, they have another conversation with the consultants, during which they share their thoughts and feelings in relation to what they have read, Mihailova said.

Klisurova, who in 2014 co-founded the Travelling Books of Stara Zagora to encourage people to read and discuss what they read with fellow booklovers, has applied her bibliotherapy knowledge in activities with children.

She said she once used a literary work to help children realise that aggression, contrary to popular representations, is more often a sign of fear than strength.

Sometimes consultants and patients go through a book together.

The bibliotherapy specialist may, for instance, ask the reader to stop at a certain passage and describe their emotions on the spot or try to predict how the story will develop.

While the initial project in Bulgaria was aimed at introducing librarians to bibliotherapy as an aide in consultation with adoptive parents, it has since expanded in terms of both scope and use.

Donev and Mincho Nikolov, who also works at the Institute for Contemporary Psychology, compiled the first bibliotherapy guide in Bulgaria. 

With financial backing from the Global Libraries Foundation, they printed 1,500 copies of the booklet and distributed most of them to libraries across the country.

Bibliotherapy is the latest in a string of innovative services introduced by some of the 2,800 or so public libraries in Bulgaria.

The regional library in Varna, for example, has organised a 3-D printing and modelling course several times. During the sessions, teenagers learned to model 3-D objects such as a simple cube, a favourite character, or a practical tool for daily use.

Its counterpart in Ruse offers outstanding public services as well. In addition to offering to 3-D modelling and programming courses for children, it helps adults learn how to use mobile devices and tries to improve the financial literacy of both children and adults.

These and other examples illustrate the multiple ways in which public libraries in Bulgaria can benefit citizens, especially the less privileged members of communities outside the capital.

The difficulty, Donev explains, is that bibliotherapy and other similar services do not receive much government support, meaning that they become overly dependent on external funding, making long-term planning practically impossible.

Nevertheless, Donev remains optimistic because of librarians’ commitment. “It is very easy to work with librarians, as they are idealists with huge hearts ready to fight for causes,” Donev said.

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