Talking Points

Swordcraft programming brings history, hands-on excitement to patrons

March 1, 2024

Photo of two people demonstrating sword fighting
Courtney Waters (left), youth services manager at Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City, Missouri, learns fencing moves from a Guild of Knightly Arts instructor.Photo: Photo: Mariah Luebbering

When Courtney Waters saw young patrons taking an interest in fantasy and medieval history, she decided to introduce sword fighting at her library.

“I’m always looking to do programs that are a little bit off the beaten path,” says Waters, youth services manager at Missouri River Regional Library (MRRL) in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Enter centuries-old combat and training techniques, which have seen a boom in recent years, thanks in part to the emergence of historical European martial arts (HEMA) communities, mainly in the US, Australia, and Europe.

After seeing another library host a swordcraft program, Waters came across the Guild of Knightly Arts, a local HEMA group in Jefferson City that formed in 2019. If there was enough interest for a local sword-fighting community, she figured there should be enough interest in a library program on the topic.

“Crafts are awesome, book clubs are cool, lectures are cool, but I wanted something more hands-on,” she says. “Something active and unique, something that people would not ordinarily have a chance to do on their own.”

In July 2022, 20 adults and eight teens attended the first MRRL sword-fighting event, a Scottish broadsword class that featured a demonstration by a local expert invited by the Guild.

Other libraries have also taken note of the swordcraft trend.

Kevin Marsh, director of Copperas Cove (Tex.) Public Library (CCPL), has more than four decades of experience in multiple forms of sword fighting—an interest spurred by reading books about King Arthur and chivalry at the public library as a kid.

To incentivize youth to come to the library, Marsh skipped the pizza and snacks, opting instead for swordcraft. He created a summer reading program in 2021 called Hero Camp, designed for two groups—ages 7–10 and 11–17—where they learned sword-fighting techniques with foam weapons, crafted armor and shields, and learned how to properly use safety gear. Participants were required to submit a waiver from a caregiver.

Marsh says that through his membership in the Society for ­Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international organization that studies and reenacts ­pre-Renaissance history, he was able to form a partnership with the group for CCPL’s event last May. SCA has surviving documents from the 16th century that, through translated text and drawings, list steps for fighting.

“There are a lot of people out there in the community who have knowledge of how to do these things,” he says. “You don’t have to invent it from scratch.”

At this younger level, Marsh says his aim is to teach movement and balance: “Even if they never do sword fighting again, they’re going to be able to use that throughout their life.”

Fighting a dual duel

At Kent District Library (KDL) in Comstock Park, Michigan, Outreach and Programming Manager Hennie Vaandrager also recognized the excitement of sword fighting for some younger patrons, especially those who may not necessarily come to the library.

“We’re always trying to reach teens—but also boys because we just seem to have a harder time engaging them in some of our programming,” Vaandrager says. “This just seemed like a really great fit.”

Younger patrons did not participate in combat with swords at KDL, but they witnessed demonstrations and looked at historical artifacts, many of which were provided by the nearby Swordsmanship Museum and Academy, which partnered with the library on the program.

Many of those who attended were captivated by the history of the weapons and wanted to learn more, says Greg Lewis, KDL’s programming specialist. To complement this learning, several branches offered reading materials related to swordcraft and European martial arts, and the library plans to host its third program this summer.

At MRRL, Waters says, attendees were captivated by the hands-on portions of the programs, especially having an opportunity to hold and swing a sword.

“We see it so much in movies and videogames, but you never get to do that in real life with a real sword,” she says. “And it does feel pretty cool to hold one, trying to block or strike one of the instructors.”

Waters encourages other libraries to host a similar event. Not only is the program “sneaky educational,” she says, “it’s good exercise as well.”


Illustration by Tom Deja

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