Searching the National Archives Catalog for Still Photographs

The following guide describes various methods that can be used when searching the National Archives Catalog for photographs. While photographs can be found in regional facilities and presidential libraries, for the purpose of this post, the methods focus on searching the Catalog for photographs specifically held by the Still Picture Branch.

Keyword Searching

Generally most people using the National Archives Catalog for the first time are going to start by completing a keyword search. Keyword searches are the simplest type of search. However, because our Catalog searches records held in all National Archives facilities, keyword searches frequently return too many results. To sort through a long list, we recommended that researchers use the “filter by” feature.

To begin a search, go to Enter your enter keywords and click on the magnifying glass.

Next, use the left-side panel to narrow the results. It is best to refine your search by the type of materials and/or the location. 

After narrowing the results, researchers are left with a manageable set of descriptions to browse through. In this example, the search originally returned 958 results but when filtered, there are only 36 results for photographic records in Still Pictures. These results include 23 digitized images and 13 descriptions of analog records that have not yet been digitized.

If you see a photograph or description that you are interested in, click on the title of the record. When available, the original caption will be included in the scope and content field below the image.

For digitized materials, photographs may be downloaded using the button below the image. In some instances multiple digital copies are available for download. This is often because the image was re-scanned at a higher resolution, or there are various formats available (TIFF, JPEG, GIF). To download the different copies, select the thumbnail from the right-hand side and then click download.

Searching Within a Series

At the National Archives the most common unit of record is called a “series.” A series is a body of records that were accumulated and used together for a specific purpose, during a distinct period of time, and are usually arranged in a particular order. When we take on digitization projects in the Still Picture Branch, we scan individual items and upload them to the Catalog nestled under the series description. The following is an example of how users would specifically search series that have been digitized.

In this example (83-G: Photographic Prints Documenting Programs and Activities of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Predecessor Agencies), we can see that the series has been fully digitized and there are 1,833 individual items (photos) that have been added to the Catalog. To search the images specifically filed within 83-G, users first click on the “search within this series” button.

Users are then directed to a “search within” page. Please note that there are two search boxes that appear on this page. To complete keyword searches that specifically pull results from the 83-G series, use the “search within this series” box.

A search for the term “California” within 83-G returned 251 photos that include the keyword in the caption.

File Units

Many series within the Still Picture Branch are arranged by file unit. A file unit is a group of documents related by use or topic, typically housed in a folder. The National Archives Catalog attempts to mirror this type of organizational structure (Series –> File Unit –> Item). Unlike the example above where items are attached to the series description (there are no file units/folders), there are instances where digitized items are “attached” to the file unit.

In the example below (127-GVB: Black and White Photographs of Marine Corps Activities in Vietnam) we can see that the series is fully digitized and there are 391 file units. The fully digitized indicator + the file units = scans are attached to the file units. To begin your search, click on the “search within this series” button and follow the steps described above.

Keyword searches will pull file units and individual items that match your search terms. Searching the word “civilian” within 127-GVB returns 8 file units and 1,522 items.

From the results page, users can then choose to look through the items individually or they can browse the file units. To view images within a specific file unit (aka folder), users should filter the results by the level of description (file unit) and then click on the title of the file unit.

After clicking on the title, users will be taken to a description page. The file unit description page will tell researchers are how many photographs are included within that file unit/folder. In this example, there are 137 items/photos in the 127-GVB file unit named Vietnamese Civilian Life – 1969. There are two ways to see all 137 photos – by clicking the “search within this file unit” or clicking the link further down the page that says “to access more and to search within the File Unit click here” (highlighted in red below).

Both links will take you to the same landing page, which includes all of the photos filed within that specific file unit/folder.

Publishing Still Photographs from the National Archives

Researchers should refer to our “use restrictions” when determining whether or not they can use an image freely.

  • Restricted – Fully: The archival materials have either a copyright, donor, or other use restriction.
  • Restricted – Possibly: The archival materials may have a use restriction.
  • Undetermined: It is unknown if the archival materials have a use restriction.
  • Unrestricted: There are no copyright, donor, or other use restrictions on the archival materials.

Photographs that are unrestricted do not have any known copyright restrictions.Use restrictions are listed under the “details” heading, found below each digitized item.

Additional Resources

Using the National Archives Catalog:

National Archives Catalog Search Tips:

National Archives Catalog Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians:

If you have questions about still photographs, you may contact the Still Picture Branch at