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Military Photographs: Finding Images in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress

Searching & Viewing

This section suggests techniques to help you identify the most relevant collections and images. All of the scanned photos and catalog records for collections can be found in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Top tip #1: We are ready to answer your questions! Please reach out to us through the Ask A Librarian email service.

Top tip #2: Check illustrated websites or books about your military topic to gather the names of people, battles, armed services, and locations. Those words are often useful in searching through the Prints & Photographs collections.

Searching and Viewing Online

  • A photograph can contain a large amount of information. Rarely is all of the content be listed in a photo's title or in the notes section of a catalog record. When searching for a topic, think of other terms that may have been used. For example, when looking for airplanes, the title might say plane, aircraft, jet, etc., or the title might list only a plane's model number or manufacturer’s name.

  • Another strategy is to think of terms that are broader or narrower than the subject you start with. For example, when looking for the Battle of the Bulge, a photo, especially one published at the time, may not list the battle's name. It may list only the location. Searching for specific towns may locate more images. Alternatively, it may be necessary to broaden the search to simply France or Belgium and add a year and possibly a month. Dates are especially helpful with press photos, which were sometimes allowed to print only limited information, such as "Somewhere in France."

  • Research may be needed to locate all photos from a particular battle or war. Most photos in the Prints & Photographs Division are kept with the collection they came with, and the collection might cover a wide array of topics. Therefore, to see all the photos of a particular war, you need to look through a large amount of material. This is especially true for World War I and World War II.
  • A war or battle may be known by different names in different countries. It can be helpful to look for variations on the names because only some catalog records include the formal English name of a war or location. For example, World War I may be referred to as the First World War, the World War, the Great War, the European War, la Grande Guerre (France), and Erster Weltkrieg (Germany).

  • When seeking photos on very specific topics, you may need to look through large numbers of images. For example, the available descriptions rarely identify each type of plane, ship, machine gun.

  • Photos taken during battles are rare until the 1900s. It can also be hard to find actual combat photos before World War II. Many of the earlier photos were staged or taken during training.

  • The Prints & Photographs Division has fairly good coverage of larger US Navy ships is the latter 1800's through World War II. The smaller the ship the more difficult it will be to locate in our collections. Some foreign ships can be found, but they are less numerous.

  • Official war time photos taken by United States military branches or by US government agencies (with the exception of the Office of War Information) are at the National Archives. The Prints & Photographs Division may have copies of some photos, but they are not represented comprehensively and are scattered among multiple collections.

  • For post-World War II military photographs the National Archives or one of the individual military branches can be a better source for rights free images.

  • State and local libraries or historical societies can be useful sources when looking for Civil War units mustered from that area or for finding photos of forts, bases, and training camps located within their geographic regions. University libraries can also be good sources of photos taken in their area or related to their faculty and alumni who served in the military.

  • Several other divisions at the Library of Congress have military photos in their collections. The Manuscript Division holds the papers of many high ranking military officers and politicians. In some cases, those photos were transferred to the Prints & Photographs Division. In other cases, some or all of the photographs remain with the papers. For example, the extensive photo albums of General George Patton are with his papers in the Manuscript Division. The Veterans History Project collects oral histories and objects from veterans, which sometimes include photographs. The Science, Technology & Business Division's Technical Reports & Standards Unit holds the L'Aerophile Collection, which has aviation photos taken during World War I and World War II.

  • The Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record / Historic American Landscapes Survey Collection documents military facilities and sites related to many armed services throughout American history. A search for the word “military” will give you a sense of the more than 2,000 forts, cemeteries, schools, and other structures represented in the collection.

Further Information

Prints & Photographs Division (float this)