During a recent weekend spent cleaning out her desk of files, reference librarian Vaun Stevens discovered several old letters from Missoula Public Library patrons. The letters contained the kind of reference questions Stevens has been consistently asked during her 40-year tenure at the library—for instance, how to find an obituary of a great aunt who died in the 1920s, or how to track down information about an event that happened in Missoula decades ago.
What struck Stevens about the letters was that no matter the variety of questions or whether they're asked via snail mail, e-mail or in person, people's desire for certain types of information remains the same.
"The questions haven't really changed," Stevens says. "It's our ability to find the answers that has changed. Until the local genealogy society started indexing vital records—birth, death, marriage—unless somebody had a precise date of a person's death you couldn't look it up. Now we have an index and you can look up by each year."
Stevens retires at the end of December. When she started at the library in 1970 it was located in the old building of the current Missoula Art Museum. Her initial job as the children's librarian consisted of gathering kids for story time into a little basement room populated by a handful of book shelves and a couple of tables.
"It was very crowded but we had a good time," she says.
Stevens became the reference librarian a year later, and in 1974 the library moved into its current location. The layout has changed over the years as the library added new computers and resources—and Stevens has watched that evolution happen.
"The biggest change has been that technology over the years," she says. "Books are still bound and read by people; that hasn't changed. But computers have made it an entirely different world."
On the brink of retirement, however, it's not really the books or technology that Stevens will miss, she says. It's the day-to-day curiosity that both the public and her co-workers have surprised her with over the years.
"I'm going to miss the questions," she says. "You never know what's going to happen next at the reference desk."