A Little Light Reading | One Cool Thing

Depending on where they live, up to ten percent of Americans suffer from some form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In their role as community spaces, some libraries are helping by providing light therapy lamps, the standard treatment for SAD.
Light therapy lamp in use at Toronto Public Library

Light therapy lamp in use at Toronto Public Library

Depending on where they live, up to ten percent of Americans suffer from some form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In their role as community spaces, some libraries are helping by providing light therapy lamps, the standard treatment for SAD.

For two weeks in December 2016 and January 2017, the Lawrence Public Library (LPL), KS, opened its auditorium for “Light Reading.”

“The idea came about after some staff members were discussing our own issues/experiences with seasonal depression and the luck we’ve had with SAD lamps,” explained Kate Gramlich, reader services librarian. The director immediately agreed, so “we bought the four lamps, contacted local resources for information, reserved the auditorium, and, voila! a program was born.”

Representatives from a community mental health center and University of Kansas psychology services provided handouts and contact information. Originally scheduled for just a few days, the popularity of the lamps led LPL to extend the program to two weeks. Now, the lamps are available for in-house checkout (no library card required). LPL may eventually allow lamps to be checked out for home use.

The great light north

Canadian libraries have also responded to the country’s high incidence of SAD. In 2014, Robin Mazumder, a mental health occupational therapist, was trying to treat his own SAD when he realized that full-spectrum lamps were often too expensive for many people, from $50 and up. Mazumder wanted to make lamps available to anyone, for free, by placing them in the public library. “Libraries are places of access—you can borrow a multitude of things from the library, so why not light therapy?” he wondered.

The Edmonton Public Library (EPL), Alta., agreed to host the program when Mazumder approached the staff with an Edmonton Awesome Foundation innovation grant in hand to purchase three lamps. (For more on the Awesome Foundation, see p. 16ff.) Residents can sit next to a lamp in the reading lounge and spend the recommended 30 minutes under the light while using library materials. Richard Thornley, manager of the Enterprise Square Branch, is enthusiastic. “[In Edmonton], sun exposure is limited during the winter months to about four hours a day.… The lamps have worked well, with very little intervention from staff.… We’ve used [them] for a little over three years and have yet to replace a bulb and have had no damage.”

Inspired by EPL’s program, Toronto Public Library (TPL) is running a pilot in two branches, Brentwood and Malvern. The program meshes with the library’s strategic plan goal, noted Tiziano Vanola, branch head at Brentwood, “to inspire the city and its community to make the residents…more resilient…and more successful” and ties in to existing programs on depression and stress. Funding was straightforward, explained Alex Carruthers, manager for learning and community engagement. “[We said] we haven’t spent our whole [operations] budget by the end of the year. Let’s just do this cool project.”

Use is high and support is strong. “In the last two weeks, only a few times when we checked, the lamps were not in use,” reported Vanola. “We’ve already had two people asking whether they could donate therapy lamps to the library so that more people could benefit.”

For Penny-Lynn Fielding, director of customer and community engagement at the Kitchener Public Library (KPL), Ont., the process was even easier: Mazumder came to Kitchener as a community guest librarian and helped secure funding for six light therapy lamps through partnerships with mental health centers. The program started in February and was to be available at all five KPL locations through mid-March. Mazumder has also capitalized on his success by launching the #Lightbrary program website (lightbraryproject.wordpress.com) and securing discounted rates from a lamp manufacturer.

Making a difference

At LPL, lamp users dropped off nearly 30 comment cards—“which is good for that type of program,” noted Gramlich—and spoke to staff at the welcome desk. One notable comment said, "Thank you SO much for providing this. I have been able to try light therapy because of this program and am so thankful.... This program helps myself and my whole family as we are all affected by my SAD."

In Toronto, Carruthers knows of one woman who was “[lying] in bed when she found out that the library was offering the light therapy lamps and jumped straight out...to come into the Brentwood Branch.” A Kitchener survey respondent said, “Love it! Literally brightened my day.” And from Edmonton, Mazumder reported that one man’s psychiatrist recommended he use the library lamps. He had been extremely depressed and suicidal at times. He reported to the staff that since using the lamps, his depression got much better.

Beyond providing a public service, using the lamps in a public place can mainstream the discussion of mental health. Mazumder explained, “When people use these lamps in public spaces, they are kind of nonverbally communicating that perhaps they are feeling a little low,” which can inspire a conversation about mental health. Or, as a Lawrence resident put it, “So cool! Destigmatize mental illness!”

Most libraries running a therapy lamp program report great success and will be offering them again. (TPL will decide after the pilot ends in April.) In Lawrence, Gramlich hopes to extend the program with more dates, starting in October. “I’m eager to make this something that our community can expect to find at the library during colder months,” she said.

Jennifer Koerber is an independent trainer and speaker on emerging technologies and the social web and coauthor (with Michael Sauers) of Emerging Technologies: A Primer for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

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