Walk into the Carson City Library around lunch time looking for help and chances are good that help will come from Wendell Huffman.
The lanky, quiet Huffman will ask a few questions to pin down what's needed, then hand over a reference volume or send a patron to the right shelf where the answer lurks.
"How good a librarian does has to do with reference experience, both in the library and in the world," said Huffman, who came to the Carson library eight years ago as a reference librarian.
He still spends two hours a day under the "reference" sign that hangs from the ceiling opposite the entrance, but his main job now is cataloger, deciding the most appropriate place that each new volume should be placed in the stacks and putting the information in the library's electronic catalog.
With his wire-framed glasses and usually solemn demeanor, Huffman looks the part of a scholar with master's degrees in library science and the history of science, who worked five years in a University of Oklahoma library collection with volumes that averaged 250 years old, whose private passion is researching and writing about nearly forgotten Sierra railways.
But when Huffman, now 53, attended Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, he endured a three-year wait to get into the horse shoeing program established and taught by the last of the U.S. Army Cavalry's horseshoers. His skills with an anvil and a forge took Huffman to a ranch near Echo Lake, off Highway 50 West, the first of a series of rural, physical jobs for the Carpenteria-area town boy.
"I've been a cowboy, a logger in northwestern California, worked a winter in the Alaskan oil fields, mowed hay in Oklahoma," Huffman said as he sat beneath a cartoon poster of an anxious bicyclist pedaling furiously in front of a looming logging truck. "I've been both characters in that poster."
Huffman returned to college after years of outdoor labor, he enrolled in the graduate program in the history of science of the University of Oklahoma at Norman and took a job in the school library's history of science collection. he wanted to study the American West, Huffman said. Someone took him to the science collection and handed him a 16th-century first edition of a work by Galileo, a book that had been Galileo's personal volume.
"We also had all of Darwin's works," Huffman recalled. "The collection held 80,000 volumes, with a median date of 1750.
"It was just natural, working there, for me to enter the masters of library science program as well."
Huffman worked in the special collection for five years, but knew it did not hold much potential for advancement and he wanted to return to the mountains of the West, he said. That brought him to Carson city, along with wife Lisa.
"Carson is good, too, because I've always liked railroads. And I'm closer to where my relatives are in California than when I was working at the north or south ends of California," he said.
Huffman's love of railroads has developed into researching the lesser known influences surrounding the plans to build the Transcontinental Railroad a century and a half ago. While the Central Pacific was the successful western railroad in that effort, a number or competitors for the honor arose and faded before its completion, lines with names like the Placerville and Sacramento and the Shingle Springs.
"There was a lot of rivalry regarding railroads between factions in San Francisco and Benecia, back when Benecia was California's capital," Huffman said. "And it may be that the discovery of the Comstock Lode was a key factor in laying the route of the Transcontinental Railroad over Donner Summit rather than wrapping around Mt. Lassen."
His research takes him to other libraries, to museums and occasionally to the homes of descendants of people he reads in 150-year-old old newspaper articles.
"Sometimes you find out something that suggests other reasons for the decisions that were made, something besides what was printed at the time," he said. "And I'm looking for family photographs of the individuals I'm researching."
Huffman's only challenges aren't those wrapped up in old book covers. New publications bring puzzles daily.
"Each book has to be given a number based on the ideas it contains, but there's more than a single idea in a book. Many authors try to help by suggesting classification numbers, but they can make mistakes," Huffman said.
"One book that came in was about child adoption, but the suggested numbering code was actually for child slavery."
And the method for assigned codes, the Dewey Decimal System, is a century old and couldn't anticipate the information that has developed since then.
"An obvious problem area is the 600s, which covers technology. The material in the 620s really could use a whole 100-number series itself," Huffman said.
"Computers, which fit into technology as well, are in the low 100s because they were originally considered communication devices and the 100s deal with communications."
Though he works with computers daily himself, Huffman said he's no fan of that technology. The computer catalog has probably replaced printed index cards permanently, he said, but 10 or 20 years in the future library patrons will still be walking between stacks, scanning the numbers on spines of books and flipping their own pages.