Ian Swart Brings History Alive at THS

Editor at Large

HISTORY MYSTERY: Ian Swart, the new collections manager and archivist of the Tulsa Historical Society, holds an ancient negative of a group of Tulsans. He doesn’t know who they are but is anxious to find out. He wears gloves because the old negatives can be brittle and easily scratched and he doesn’t want to get any oil on the negative. He is just beginning a process of cataloging tens of thousands of items he estimates will take him several years to complete, but when it’s done Tulsans should have a much handier pathway to the city’s history.

DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers

The path that led Ian Swart to be the collection manager and archivist of the Tulsa County Historical Society may have begun the day Nancy Cunningham climbed on top of her desk and danced the Charleston.

Cunningham was Swart’s fifth grade teacher and she could make history come alive. The Charleston was her way to lead the class into the Roaring ‘20s. Inspired by her and tales he heard from his grandfather (a marvelous storyteller), Swart became a history buff. He was particularly fascinated by the American Civil War and went on to be a history major at Oklahoma State University where he spent considerable time getting on-the-job training by working on the school’s archives.

He then became curator of the Plains Indian and Pioneer Museum in Woodward, where he found his job included more than just scholarly pursuits: “I not only had to categorize thousands of items but I did public relations, gave walking tours, did lectures, carried items in trunks to be displayed before school kids and, when necessary, cleaned the bathrooms.”

Swart thoroughly enjoyed his time in Woodward but two things drew his attention to Tulsa. The first was his passion for western swing and bluegrass music. Tulsa offers a better chance to indulge in such music than Woodward. Second, and more importantly, he had fallen in love with a classmate from who had become a schoolteacher in Tulsa. When the Tulsa Historical Society job opened up, her principal alerted her to the opportunity, she alerted Swart, he interviewed for it and was accepted. In one whirlwind weekend he and his fiancée drove to Colorado (a favorite spot for both of them) and got married, and drove back to Woodward. On Oct. 11 he spent his last day in the Woodward museum and drove the 212 miles to Tulsa. The next day at 8:15 a.m. he was at his desk in the Historical Society, where a daunting task awaited him.

“We have tens and tens of thousands of documents and over 50,000 photographs. We are trying to digitize our photographs so they will be available on the Internet. We need a lot of help from the community. We get all sorts of odds and ends we may not recognize. People buy things from estate sales and find old photographs which they bring to us. I’m working on a picture, probably from the 1930s, of a group of men standing outside a building. Who are the men? What was the building? What was the occasion? We don’t know and would love to have someone tell us.”

Swart is one of six permanent employees at the Historical Society, each of whom has their own niche. There are another 65 or so volunteers who assist in a myriad of tasks and Swart is helped by some of them in trying to catalog the vast collection of memorabilia. “I estimate it’s going to take me at least two years to get the photos online. In time I hope to have our collection on computer so that a researcher doing work on, say, Ritz Theater will only have to punch in the request on our website to discover whatever information we have on that theater.”

Much of the memory of early Tulsa is passing by and Swart is anxious to capture it while still available. “I had a woman who called me and asked if I would like some photographs of the Perrymans (one of the founding families of Tulsa). I leaped in my car and was at her house in minutes. She was, I would guess, around 90 years old and told me wonderful stories of her girlhood in Tulsa. I asked if I could bring a video camera to record her. People like her are available but they won’t be long. I want to get those memories before they’re gone.”

He is looking for Tulsans to fill in the blanks of his collection. Pictures of early church picnics, for example, are interesting in themselves but Swarts hopes that someone may recognize his Uncle Fred and Aunt Sally and know that they were members of the Baptist Church and so this photo probably dates to a certain time and group. History sometimes is a jigsaw puzzle and the pieces have to be found before they can put assembled into something meaningful. Swart has thousands of pieces carefully preserved in special containers designed to keep out dust and debris as the research library of the Historical Society is being renovated. By February he hopes to move from his temporary quarters in the research library to the archives where the pieces await him.

He can’t wait to begin to assemble them.

Updated 01-18-2012

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  1. — Jerry P    Dec 27, 05:09 PM    #
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