by Akilah Nyerere
photography by Vicky Martinez
Dr. Marlin Heckman is the epitome of a librarian par excellence. It seems as though he knows where to find the answer to a question before it is even asked. But there is more to Dr. Marlin Heckman, head librarian of the University of La Verne Wilson Library than knowing where the right source is located. He is also a published author. His books, however, are not the typical books found in the stacks of the Wilson Library. They are not filled with anthropological theory, the epic rise and fall of a far off nation or even how to raise a champion breed of dog.
His most recent books are about postcards. More precisely, his books are postcards. He presents them in a way that most would not have even thought to be possible. These real photo postcards relate the story of cities, telling their history in a unique way that grabs people’s attention. “Postcards have been used to depict bad scenes as well as beautiful ones,” he says.
Dr. Heckman began collecting postcards after coming across a prototype book made entirely of postcards in the Los Angeles Public Library while on sabbatical two years ago. Immediately, he began collecting his own. Since, he has found postcards in antique stores and swap meets, postcard shows and shops. He has paid from as little as 25 cents to as much as $16 for a single card. He has published five postcard books. Lordsburg/La Verne was his first publication. Then came Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Santa Catalina Island and Pasadena. He is working on a proposal for a book for Santa Monica. In late March 2001 he added a new twist to his publishing credits with the publication of his pictorial history of the University of La Verne, the first in what he plans to be a college history series of different universities. “I’ve had some people bring them by to be signed, so I know some are being bought,” jokes Dr. Heckman. The author has published several other books, including “Overland on the California Trail” and “The Gem of Lordsburg: The Lordsburg Hotel/College Building 1887-1927.”
Getting any book published is a difficult task. For his postcard series, Dr. Heckman must first collect between 190 to 225 cards of the specific city. A proposal must be drawn, explaining in detail the purpose of the book and showing some of the pictures that will be used, if accepted. Dr. Heckman must then sort the postcards by topic, such as buildings or towns, and he uses the description found on the back of the card as text, which includes publisher and the date, if it is postmarked. He also writes most of the captions found in his books, supplying additional information that he gathers from the city’s public library. He then must decide which cards should go into the book. He likes to choose pictures with people in them, modes of transportation or homes and gardens in order to allow the reader to understand how people lived and see what was important to them. “The pictures that are on these postcards tell a lot of history that you don’t get in print,” says Dr. Heckman. Postcards capture the moments in history that would normally be forgotten. For example, he found a card that captured the moment in 1933 when all of the clocks in Long Beach stopped at five minutes to six immediately after an earthquake.
Although all of his published books have featured black and white photography, Dr. Heckman is considering seeking a color publisher for future books. His current publisher, Arcadia Publishing, only prints black and white. Dr. Heckman is also open to the possibility of publishing a book that compares a current city to how it looked many years ago.
Dr. Heckman considers himself a history lover. “I was not quite a double major. When I was here, they didn’t really have double majors, but I had enough courses in history I could have a double major,” he says. What intrigues him most about history is finding out what life was like for those who lived in those days. His books have allowed him to learn much about the history of the cities that he grew up in and around. One story that was not told in his book, “Lordsburg/La Verne,” was the most interesting to him. While finding and collecting cards for this book, Dr. Heckman visited a local antique store. There, he found three postcards that were addressed to the same person. He realized that the addresses written on these postcards were locations that he knew members of his family were in during that time period. Soon, he realized that his grandmother wrote the cards in 1909. “If I had known that that card had existed, I would never have been able to find it. But by remarkable coincidence, in a local antique store, I found a postcard written by my grandmother,” says Dr. Heckman.
“I like to spend time in libraries,” he says. “I go to libraries on my days off, on my vacations. I can go to the Huntington Library and get lost in the stacks and not even know what time it is.” He devotes much of his time to the pursuit of knowledge.
Although current technology allows people to communicate instantaneously, Dr. Heckman sees that these advances have made writing, letter writing in particular, a lost art. Years ago, writing letters was “a way to share your life,” he says. Letters told history, recording what was happening in people’s lives as they lived them. On one postcard, Dr. Heckman recalls a person writing, “I haven’t had time to meet anyone; I’ve spent all of my time writing postcards.” He says that writing postcards were the way that people communicated. From about 1900 to 1920, millions and millions of postcards were written, and almost everyone seemed to collect them, he says.
His parents, both of whom were teachers, instilled in him the love for the written word at a young age. “My parents always read; we always went to libraries. All of us had books to read all of the time,” Dr. Heckman says. “Reading was just always a part of what we did.”
Dr. Heckman has strong roots within the La Verne community, reaching farther than his postcard research. Both of his parents attended the University of La Verne. Dr. Heckman and his wife Shirley are also ULV alumni, and his grandfather was on the University’s Board of Trustees. “When we were in school [early 1950s], there were probably 325 full-time students total,” says Dr. Heckman. He sees many similarities as well as differences in student life today and when he was enrolled. “We complained about the food then,” he jokes. He recalls that students participated in activities, ate together in a family-style setting, and watched the one television, which was located in the lobby of Woody Hall, together.
He appreciates not only the academic education that he received at ULV, then La Verne College, but also the life experience. “There’s something about broadening yourself through all kinds of means of education,” he says. “It’s more than just going to class and sitting for exams.”
A man who constantly yearns for knowledge, he has nurtured a love of history and the written word by using pictures to give people an idea of what their city used to be like. Postcards have been sent across towns, states and continents to tell about anything from vacations to announcements or just to send greetings. “About the time you think everything has been found, something turns up that no one expected was still around,” says Dr. Heckman. Now, Marlin Heckman is using these undiscovered postcard treasures to give voice to the past, and they are speaking volumes.