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Success Stories

Local Library “More than Just Books” for Rural Montana Town

Mark McCann
Community Facilities
Librarians present and past, Tina Peterson (L) and Kathleen Schreiber (R) in Harlowton's Library.

“The Light Lies on the Farther Hills,” was the motto of the Harlowton Women’s Club at is founding in 1921. The club’s first project was to establish a public library for the town to “stimulate intellectual development and promote fellowship.”

That same year, the Harlowton Public Library started with donated books in the conference room of a local bank and has grown into an enduring institution that has served this rural community for more than a century.  

As the town grew, so did the need for additional library space. Over the years, the library has relocated three times. It moved in 1926 to where Harlowton’s post office now stands, in 1935 to Harlowton’s City Hall building next door, and, finally, in 2004 to its current location in the former Painter’s Grocery and Wells Furniture stores.

“It’s kind of a mainstay here on Main Street because we know it’s always going to be here,” said Harlowton Mayor Paul Otten. “A library is a great thing to have in a small town. People are always in here.”

But in 2019, after years of service to the community, the building’s roof began to leak, endangering the structure and the books below. 

So, after exploring several options to address the problem, Harlowton connected with USDA Rural Development in Montana and secured funding for repairs through a Community Facilities Direct Grant and Economic Impact Initiative Grant.

“If we were not able to get the funding, we would have had to close the library because it would have been unsafe,” said Mayor Otten.

Catering to about a thousand patrons each month, the library serves as a safe space for Harlowton’s children and a hub that offers many programs and services for teens, adult residents, community groups, and visitors.

“We provide services that are not offered in any other way for the community,” said Library Director Tina Peterson, whose parents once owned the grocery store that is now the library’s home. “People need connections to services that they might not have access to otherwise.”

More than just books, a library connects its patrons to resources around them and can sometimes serve as a rural community’s only link to a world beyond city limits. It’s also a safe after school harbor for Harlowton’s children; a place they can go to connect with friends, study, participate in programs, or just get an after-school snack. 

Asked about a significant factor resulting from funding to repair the roof, Mayor Otten thought for a moment and said, simply, “The library stayed open.”

Indeed, the “Light continues to Lie on Farther Hills” as the long-ago aspiration of Harlowton Women’s Club – “stimulating intellectual development and promoting fellowship” – lives on in perpetuity so long as Harlowton’s library remains.  

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