It's a fair statement to say that those with an interest in arms and armour tend to be a pretty passionate bunch. I'm no different. I like to visit museums, gaze at swords I can never hope to own, read about the same in books and lust over pieces in the hands of other private collectors. But what I like most of all is learning something new about the pieces I am lucky enough to own.I think most collectors have an interest to some extent in learning about what they collect. Some areas are easier than others, Persian or Indian arms are fairly well documented for example. But some, like African arms are not popular enough to warrent extensive books and articles. The level of interest a collector has also varies, some are content with a classification and knowing where a piece came from. Others dive into the nuances of a type. Lastly, some will be disappointed with the spare level of information they find and strive to contribute within a particular area.
I fall completely into the latter category and I think that private collectors truely have a role to play in advancing the knowledge and research of arms and armour in many regions. This is a topic which is often not covered in detail within academia. The reason quite simply, is that it is extremely specific. While the history, economy, politics and warfare of a culture may all attract attention, a detailed look at a particular sword type is quite unusual. A sword or a spear is simply a weapon within a larger picture and specific descriptions are rarely featured in primary sources. Step off the well trodden track trying to find detail and you are often looking at a black hole.
For many collectors with an interest in simply obtaining an evocative example or two and checking of a particular box in their regional collection this will not be a cause for great concern. But for those who truely wish to know more, it is infuriating.
If you are unlucky enough to find yourself interested in a region that for centuries was not well known to outsiders, is Islamic and thus does not have realistic period artwork and lacking extensive archeological surveys, then you are most likely going to quickly find yourself up the proverbial creek. At best you will have some known examples of a type from the colonial period - the 19th century.
I am of course speaking about my own experiences learning about the takouba - a Sahel broadsword found across a massive geographical area and poorly documented prior to the 19th century (and not even well documented within that period!) Many collectors perhaps feel they do not have the qualifications or expertise to contribute on such subjects, however they have a vital and specific area of advantage.
They own and handle the real deal, actual examples and pieces of history. I have seen and handled dozens of takouba and with every sword my personal relationship with the type as a whole grows. It is an intimate relationship and has grown massively over the years. Features begin to jump out and catch your eye, elements within the lines of specific pieces so small as to not be noticed at first glance develop in your mental picture of the evolvement of the sword chronology. There is nothing, in my opinion, that surpasses spending time and handling physical examples.
The nub of a tang in a shape different to any you have seen before or the decorative patterning on a scabbard completely unlike any other you have even seen photos of, all become clues to be hunted down, often fruitlessly, but occasionally with success.
It's that feeling of discovery, watching the past come just a little bit more to life and your sword, shield, knife or spear give up just a few more of its secrets that make this passion worthwhile for me. I wish more collectors would put in the focused effort to find the same joy. By the same token formal academics with an interest in the history and warfare can only benefit from handling physical examples. Collecting and research really are a couple, not always a happy pair, but one that in the long run can be very beneficial.