What do Historical European Martial Arts and digital preservation have in common? More than you might think.

Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) is basically the art of fencing, or as some might call it, sword fighting. It also happens to be my hobby. I spent last weekend fighting in 14th century armor at a Renaissance Faire. A Scribe roamed the fair grounds with a big book, asking people to add their signatures, or “mark.” It got me thinking about long-term preservation of information, and here is why: like so many things, HEMA took off in a really big way with the introduction of the web. The web provided broad, free access to scanned copies of original manuals and treatises that previously were only accessible in museums or private collections. 

Does that sound familiar? Using technology to break information out of silos and get it to those who can do something useful and create value with it?

The Tension Between Records Management and Preservation

My personal HEMA focus is on the Italian long sword and a work by an Italian Master of Arms named Fiore dei Liberi. Dei Liberi published a book in 1409 called “The Flower of Battle,” which outlined a full martial arts system, from hand to hand combat (wrestling) to fully armored mounted combat on horseback. Note the date: 1409,  30 years before Gutenberg’s movable type printing press. The book, which includes marvelous illustrations of all the “moves,” was printed using wood blocks 609 years ago, and is still available for myself and like-minded individuals to study. 

Does your business have information that might be of interest to historians or the public 600 years from now, or 100, or even just 60?

Four versions of dei Liberi’s treatise exist in museums, all slightly different, one more damaged and missing pages, but all printed on simple paper that survived for over 600 years. Do we think our electronic information's file formats will last that long?

There is often a tension between operational records management and long-term preservation and archiving. The former focuses on the idea of defensible disposition, which pushes to get rid of information at the earliest suitable point in its lifecycle to reduce legal risk; the latter contends some information might have great value many years out into the future, viewing the long tail value of information. Obviously the context of your business, industry sector, regulatory regime and more will influence where you land on this continuum, but we might summarize it simply as shown below:


The Bank of Montreal where I work celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. In a modern nation as young as Canada that is a big deal. We have a corporate archive which houses 200-year-old documents of incorporation and other historically important information and artifacts. We also have policies on records retention, records disposition and what should and should not go to the archives. You may work for a smaller and younger organization that does not have such policies in place — should it?

Related Article: Our Disappearing Content: Why Digital Preservation Matters

Technology: Both the Problem, and the Answer?

The ever onward march of technology can be both the problem, and the answer. To go back to our historical example, Fiore dei Liberi was born in Cividale del Friuli, in what is now modern Italy. It is recorded that in 1331 early gunpowder weapons were used in an attack on the city. So before dei Liberi was even born, let alone gained his considerable knowledge and written his book, the writing was on the wall for men encased in plate armor fighting with swords and spears: the early fire arms were coming, which would eventually make knights as we think of them, militarily obsolete.

Learning Opportunities

Technology's continual progress can also make our electronic data formats obsolete. How many of you are old enough to have converted Word Perfect documents to early versions of Microsoft Word? I bet someone out there has been tasked with getting a Word Perfect 4.0 document from 1986 to open on a modern computer.

Just as the earlier scholars of Fiore dei Liberi’s work had to translate it from early medieval proto-Italian to modern Italian and then to English so a wider audience could study it, there is a need to translate digital information between file formats in order to prevent obsolescence. When I worked on the ESA Mars Express mission, with the Open University Beagle 2 Mars lander team, we used NASA’s Planetary Data System standards, which stated all images must be saved as .tiff as well as in any other format, and all documents had to be saved as simple .txt. By saving these records in the simplest formats, we hoped to ensure it could be opened in the future.

Documents are relatively straightforward: if you decide that textual information needs to be archived for long-term retention, you can save it as PDF/A where the A is for archiving. However what are you going to do with your videos, audio files, complex CAD drawings? Or the content that is in your Yammer, Jive or Connections social collaboration platforms?

Related Article: Content Policies: Your First Step Towards Comprehensive Digital Policies

Who Can Predict Future Value?

Some might argue that dei Liberi's treatise is not really that important as the need to fight in full plate armour on a battlefield is only of interest to those who do it as a hobby, a pastime. So the fact it has survived is not such a big deal. However your organization might be creating information and stewarding it on behalf of shareholders, other stakeholders and the general public, and it would be a shame if the intended audiences could not actually open it and read it or watch it even 20 years from now. 

Use the Wikipedia page on digital preservation as a starting point. Then think about what business information might provide insight and value to your organization beyond what your retention schedule says is its “end date.”

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