Visiting an Army Archive: Research Opportunities Right Here in Maryland

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Credits: Chrissie Reilly, CECOM Staff Historian

Photo Credits: The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) Historical Collection

Do you research the impact of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs?  Did a parent or grandparent serve in a war? Are you interested in military materiel culture? Will you need primary source materials for a thesis or dissertation that have not yet been fully explored?

For all of these questions, and more, contact your nearest U.S. Army historian, museum professional, or archivist. The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., has documents, books, Army newspapers, photographs and negatives, and willingly supports visiting researchers. Our staff office writes about, conducts research in, indexes, and maintains a few thousand linear feet related to this command and the U.S. Army.

Why a military archive?

Research trips to these facilities are often rewarding because of the level of specificity of archival materials, manageable amounts of materials, and staff members that have intimate knowledge of the collection. In addition, the collections are often meticulously indexed, with multiple finding aids. Collections are also becoming more digital and user-friendly, so visitors can leave with a disc of the primary documents most relevant to their research. In fact, researchers who come to the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics historical office can be provided with digital copies of some materials. We only ask that you bring your own blank CDs.

Many archives also have extensive research libraries with secondary sources and official publications that deal with the collection.  We are a smaller institution without lending capabilities, so do not appear in library-holdings search results such as the World Catalog, but the CECOM collection has approximately 2,000 titles in our reference library section.  Once a visit has been scheduled, those reference items are available to researchers.

About the CECOM Historical Collection

Our Historical Collection has a diverse array of topics from messenger pigeons to camouflage, from early radios to recent satellites, from letters about the 1918 flu pandemic to Gulf War era construction projects.  The information is preserved in documents, books, photos, movies, microfiche, and audio formats.  While not official records in the sense of governmental records depositories, documents maintained were selected by the historians based on their potential value for the history of the aforementioned subjects.

The office's general archives are stored in acid free boxes and contain documents pertaining to various technical and historical subjects. Information is stored pertinent to a specific year, or a specific subject, for example, homing pigeons. The office has photos and press clippings about the pigeons used by the Army for communications, and the original notebooks used as pigeon breeding logs.

Caption: France 1918:  One of thousands of documents related to the US Army pigeon breeding and training program, which was headquartered at Fort Monmouth from WWI through the Korean War. This photo depicts Soldiers in a trench in France releasing pigeons to deliver messages.

Donated materials also make their way to the archives. The papers of Col. William R. Blair (U.S. Army ret.) (1874-1962), for example, first started coming into the collection many years ago. Blair, who is known as the father of Army radar, was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame on June 23, 2007. Some materials were collected by historians, but the majority of items came from his family’s donations.  Because of their generous donations of materials, the archive has information on the patents he filed, his meteorological research, and correspondence, in addition to biographical information and Blair’s work on radar development.

Photo Credits: The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) Historical Collection

Caption: William Blair Photo Collection:  Colonel William Blair is considered the Father of Army Radar, but he also conducted significant research in weather observation. The office is grateful to the Blair family for donating so many items to the archive.

Setting up the visit

Conducting research in an Army history office or museum is often straightforward and easy to arrange. While each archive has its own policies regarding visitors, most require no more than a one-page form to fill out.  This will allow entry to the archival area and facilitate getting on the military installation where the archive resides.  Contact our office via phone or email, and we can assist you with the paperwork for our facility.

Getting the most out of the visit

We recommend researchers explore our website and official history blog to familiarize themselves with what we have before a visit to make sure the trip will be worthwhile.  For example, there is very little in the archive on tanks, because the development, testing, and fielding of tanks was not a part of the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics mission.  Thus the historic items relating to them are maintained elsewhere, though we have extensive collections on the use of camouflage and weather radar.  We wouldn’t want researchers to make the trip only to find out that the collection doesn’t have the materials they wanted to study.

Because of the amount of digital items, too, what someone is searching for may be able to be sent through email.  By doing a few minutes of pre-researching, a potential visitor can ensure the historians are able to gather those archival items relevant to your topic, and put together a custom mini-finding aid.  It is important to us that researchers have a positive experience, and we want to make access to the collection as seamless as possible.

Follow-up

The historical office likes to hear from visitors after they’ve visited our archive.  We especially enjoy archiving those papers and reports generated from your visit, too!  This helps provide us with an excellent secondary source, and can be cited by future scholars. Networking and maintaining contact can have additional benefits. As we accession new materials into the collection, if they overlap with your research, the historians can let you know.  We currently have ‘customers’ who regularly get digital items and updates from us.  Some individuals have even made multiple visits.

From doctoral students to documentary film makers, from interested family members to history book authors, the CECOM Historical Office Archive is a great place to do research!

Please feel free to visit us at our website at http://cecom.army.mil/historian and our history blog at http://cecomhistorian.armylive.dodlive.mil/.

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