‘Library as laboratory’: moral treatment, patient libraries and reading in 19th century British asylums

Year of award: 2018


  • Laura Blair

    Queen Mary University of London

Project summary

The term ‘bibliotherapy’ was first used around the time of the First World War and now we have texts such as The Novel Cure that recommend literary remedies for different conditions. However, the idea that reading can hold powerful influence over the reader’s mental and even physical health finds its origins much earlier.

I will explore how reading was seen in the 19th century asylum. Attitudes towards reading were expressed as medical directives, framing reading as both a potential cause of or cure for mental illness. As the print culture of the era expanded, with a massive increase in periodicals and newspapers after the mid-century, asylum professionals sought to facilitate an ‘ideal’ engagement with texts.

Preliminary research indicates that reading was considered an important part of patients’ leisure and was often regarded as medically therapeutic; yet this subject has been neglected by scholars examining the history of reading, medicine and material culture.