Books on Prescription

Insights into health initiatives in libraries by Paula Younger, Librarian at Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, Weston-super-Mare, UK

I’ve been hooked on information and libraries ever since my dad introduced me to our central library at the age of three, so I guess it’s not all that surprising I’ve been doing it for a living for the last couple of decades! I’ve worked mainly in healthcare libraries (plus short stints in science and education settings). Currently, I support primary care clinicians; I work as part of a Knowledge and Library Services Team in a large healthcare trust in Somerset, in England’s west country. We also have good links with our local public libraries and are in the early stages of several health and well-being related projects aimed at reaching the community.


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Health Information and Libraries 

I don’t know about you, but finding reliable health information has been more important than ever over the past 18 months — did you know libraries are one of the most trusted places in that respect? And that includes looking after our own well-being.

Here in the UK, we’re a little ahead of you on integration of health and well-being into libraries, and I wanted to share an example, because you are talking about it a lot.

Close your eyes. Imagine you’re inside a library. What do you see?

Apart from books, that is.

I’d guess that your mind’s eye probably didn’t show you a library co-located with a general health practice.

There are plenty of examples of healthcare and academic libraries being run collaboratively in the past fifteen years or so, but it’s not quite so usual to find a library sitting snugly side-by-side with a group of healthcare professionals.

Unless, that is, you take a trip — real or virtual — to the coastal town of Weston-super-Mare in England’s West Country.

From a distance, it all looks so idyllic: pretty, pastel beach huts, an attractive promenade, seafront restaurants, and scenic views of Wales across the Bristol Channel. (On a clear day, anyway.)

Like so many seaside towns, however, Weston-super-Mare has had its fair share of challenges to face, both during the COVID-19 pandemic, and long before.

There are around 76,000 people living in this coastal resort, and over a fifth of them are over the age of 65. To put that in context, in most English towns, the percentage of seniors over this age is 16.5%.

As you can imagine, those seniors make up one of the groups in need of information to help them stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

And although the West Country as a whole is relatively wealthy, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other challenges to face too, some of them serious. It’s a largely rural county, and even towns the size of Weston-super-Mare often have patchy public transport services.

The Healthy Living Centre

Then there are areas which have what are often described as high social and economic needs. That includes the Bournville Estate, where the For All Healthy Living Centre has had its home since 2005.

Run by a social enterprise, the centre is a community hub, with a café, hall, lunch club, and children’s area. In May 2021, a food club was established, with the aim of reducing waste and raising awareness of sustainable ways to tackle food insecurity in the town.

The Healthy Living Centre grew out of the development and expansion of the former library and was supported with finances from the Big Lottery Fund. The local community had a huge input into the design of the building, which is open and airy, with light streaming in through the glass roof.

The library is an integral part of the centre, and during school terms, the glass roof often rings with the harmonies of little ones enjoying rhyme time. The library has previously hosted computer clubs, Lego clubs, and family history days.

That doesn’t mean it’s given up on print books, though — quite the contrary. Health and wellness are major themes, as you’d expect from a library sited alongside a general practice.

While there’s free WIFI available and members can tap into online resources from magazines to audiobooks, the emphasis in the book collection is on readability and accessibility.

Health titles range from advice on eating and sustaining a healthy diet to mental health in general, and Skogluft.

If you’re wondering what Skogluft is, it’s Norwegian for “forest air” — it’s all about the indoor art of surrounding yourself with the right plants, effectively creating a living wall of greenery.

And if that doesn’t appeal, a quick browse of the collection can help you uncover accounts of what it’s like to be on the frontline of the ambulance service, the gentle art of “souping”, and teach you how to sleep well every night.

Reading Well Books on Prescription

The library also holds a copy of every title on the national Reading Well Books on Prescription list. This project was launched in 2013 by the Reading Agency and is still going strong.

Many of these carefully curated titles were originally recommended by health professionals. The idea is that, rather than rush to write out a script for medication, doctors can issue patients with a book prescription to help them learn how to cope with their condition.

In its first year, Books on Prescription reached 275,000 people, covering topics like anger management, depression and anxiety, phobias, and self-harm. It was later expanded to include “mood-boosting books”, often recommended by librarians or health professionals, plus titles covering dementia and other long-term conditions. Most recently, the lists have been extended to include books aimed at helping young people.

In year one, libraries saw loan figures for the titles on the Books on Prescription list increase by 113%. The project is still evaluated every year. In 2021, after some of the most challenging months in living memory, the title shortlist was compiled by NHS staff, for NHS staff, with the aim of creating a truly uplifting collection.

The original Books on Prescription concept was based on a 2003 scheme in Wales. That pilot was led by Consultant Clinical Psychologist Professor Neil Frude, who continues to practice both for the NHS and privately.

While it might not be a connection that springs immediately to mind, we’ll leave Frude, to sum up the link between books and health: “The doctors are already there, the books are already there and so are the libraries. It just needed joining them up.”

A Transferable Model? 

The approach I’ve described above is currently being used in the UK, but I’m pretty confident it will work just as well on your side of the Pond, whether it’s Connecticut or California!