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Books On Prescription - Libraries Development Initiative

  • Date: 23 May 2013
  • Artform: Libraries
  • Area: National
young man studies book in health and wellbeing section of library Health and wellbeing books at Newcastle City Librarybooks, Photo: Steve Brock

Reading Well Books On Prescription is a self-help reading scheme led by The Reading Agency, working in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), supported with funding from the Arts Council's Libraries Development Initiative.

The scheme aims to provide self help reading material based on cognitive behavioural therapy to people experiencing a range of common mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, phobias and some eating disorders.

Books are prescribed by mental health professionals and are available from public libraries across England. They are also available for people to borrow without a prescription representing an important step in people seeking help and support.


In 2010, The Reading Agency and LISU at Loughborough University conducted research for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council that revealed a huge amount of health and well being library activity underway concerning health and wellbeing, but the lack of coherent strategic framework for delivery

Figures suggest that approximately six million people in England are suffering from anxiety or depression three quarters of whom are currently not receiving any form of treatment.

There is strong evidence that book-based cognitive behavioural therapy is a cost effective tool for offering therapeutic benefit. Books On Prescription schemes have been operating nationally in Wales and there are excellent models of good practice across England but there has been little communication between schemes and sharing of good practice.


The Reading Agency and SCL's aim was to make the best use of diminishing resources by creating a shared national model for Books On Prescription, incorporating quality assurance, best practice and the creation of a national evidence base.

In February 2012, the Public Library Health Offer Group was awarded £19,900 from the Library Development Initiative. A primary aim was to deliver a shared books on prescription model supported by a network of partnerships with national health organisations. This would ensure expert endorsement of the scheme's core book list on a national level and at a grassroots level, would support the development of local health/library partnerships.

While the scheme itself was about self-help reading, it was hoped that by using public libraries as a base, it would signpost other aspects of the library health offer such as mood boosting novels and poetry and reading groups. Libraries offer a range of activities important for health and wellbeing, and evidence recommends that creative reading can be therapeutic in its own right.


The core book list of 30 self-help titles was developed by researching existing best practice and consulting with h national health stakeholders including the Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind, the Department of Health's Improving Access To Psychological Therapies programme, and the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).

National interest in the scheme meant that the original plan to pilot with 63 interested authorities was replaced by national roll out across England. The Reading Agency has worked with the Public Library Health Offer Group and partners to develop central resources and materials. As the scheme rolls out, libraries will operate as the local co-ordinators working directly with local partners, GPs and community health nurses.

Lessons learned

  • Integrating with local activity
    Reading Well Books on Prescription has developed a flexible national approach to accommodate existing local practice and partnerships. It had been important to reassure partners that the new approach is about adding value to rather than replacing existing practice. The complex national and local partnership base is both a strength and a challenge in terms of the development of a national framework
  • Scale of demand
    Books On Prescription was originally intended to launch as a pilot in January 2013, but the popularity of the scheme means it will now launch nationally in May 2013. The demands of rolling out a national scheme across 84 per cent of English library authorities has required a concentrated investment of time and resources and a flexible approach
  • Reconciling agendas
    Different health sector partners frequently have different approaches and agendas. Reconciling their views while maintaining ongoing support has involved extensive dialogue, although The Reading Agency view this as an important investment in the long term


With the Health and Social Care Bill putting public health under the control of local authorities, there is much interest in community health prevention strategies. Libraries are ideally placed to capitalise on this.

With the commitment and endorsement of key partners in the health sector, Reading Well Books On Prescription have constructed a three-year development plan, for which they are seeking further funding. They identify a huge need for health information and support, and have future plans to develop the scheme to cater to carers, children and young people, and those suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia.

Long-term sustainable business model

Debbie Hicks, Director of Research at The Reading Agency said:

'The Arts Council funding has really opened the door to other funding opportunities. And endorsement from health partners at a national level has increased sector advocacy at a local level, and has encouraged libraries to pursue other funding sources.

'In many authorities, the scheme has attracted public health money into libraries, which is fantastic because that in turn helps to increase the broader public health offer.'