Demand For Library Services Increases As Oil Patch Population Grows

Patrons use the Williston Community Library on Saturday, April 13, 2013. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – The oil boom has prompted demand for library services here to quadruple, and the Williston Community Library is changing to meet the needs of its new population.

Job-seekers and oil boom workers often stand outside waiting for the Williston Community Library to open.

They come to use the computers or free wireless Internet to apply for jobs online, update resumes or email loved ones back home. At peak times, the patrons – primarily men – fill nearly every seat in the library.

Library Director Debbie Slais said the spike in demand for services has been stressful on staff, but they’ve made some changes to better keep up.

“It’s been quite a wild ride,” Slais said.

Some employees live in city-subsidized apartments, which has helped the library retain staff, Slais said.

The library added more computers and put strict time limits on computer usage to allow everyone an opportunity. Slais has noticed that many workers save up their money and the first thing they buy is a laptop to access the Internet.

The Dickinson Area Public Library has seen a similar increase in demand, with oilfield workers using the library’s Internet for everything from job searches to taking online safety courses, said Assistant Director Tina Kuntz.

The library has added some part-time staff to help keep up with the demand, Kuntz said.

At the McKenzie County Public Library in Watford city, it’s not uncommon for every table to be full.

Earlier this year, Nate Jeffries, a public works employee for Watford City, had to sit at the kids’ table because no other chairs were available. Jeffries, who moved to North Dakota from Colorado, uses the library for its free wireless Internet in his free time.

Brent Siu, who moved from Tennessee to Williston earlier this month, is one of the library’s frequent Internet users.

Siu, a truck driver, lives in a camper about 30 miles outside of town with limited cellphone reception and no running water. He spent one Saturday at the library video chatting with a friend.

“There’s nothing else to do in town,” Siu said.

Workers also frequently use the libraries to send faxes, make copies or scan documents.

“Our front service counter is just busy all the time,” Slais said.

In March, 1,600 people used the Williston library’s computers and 3,100 people accessed the library’s wireless Internet. The same individual could be counted more than once.

In both Williston and Dickinson, new families who have moved to the communities are getting library cards and using the services.

The Williston library now offers six story hours each week, up from one each week before the oil boom. The story hours are especially important for families that can’t find day care in Williston, Slais said.

“It’s a really good place for these new mothers and new kids to come and meet people,” Slais said.

The Williston library also is seeing a need for materials in Spanish and is ordering bilingual books and a bilingual learning station for elementary students. Circulation for the bookmobile is up throughout Williams County, with some rural schools depending on the bookmobile to help serve their growing enrollments, Slais said.

But one aspect of the library hasn’t increased much – its budget. The library’s revenue is based on property taxes, but so far the new housing being built hasn’t had much of an effect on the library’s budget, which is about $500,000 for this year, Slais said.

“Our income doesn’t rise in proportion to what our expenses are,” Slais said.

The library is usually open seven day a week but will be closed on Saturdays starting Memorial Day weekend and through the summer. Slais said she often gets asked why.

“I don’t have the money to do that,” she said.

The library in Dickinson also gets requests to stay open longer, Kuntz said. But the facility is already open 68 hours per week.

“We’re trying to accommodate everyone, but we can’t be open 24/7,” Kuntz said.