Researching the United Nations Documents

By Janet Kearney and Lucie Olejnikova

Janet Kearney is the Foreign & International Law Librarian at the Maloney Library, Fordham University School of Law. She teaches advanced legal research in foreign and international law and serves as liaison to an active faculty and international law journal. A member of the Louisiana bar, she has a J.D. with a Certificate in Civil Law from Tulane Law School and received her M.L.I.S. degree and B.A. in International Relations from Louisiana State University.

Lucie Olejnikova is the Head of Foreign and International Law at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School. She is also the Editor of Globalex. At Yale, she teaches Research Methods in Foreign and International Law course. She holds a J.D. with a Certificate in International Law and an M.L.S. degree.

NOTE: This article is a complete re-write of the original.

Published September/October 2020

(Previously updated by Leah Granger in April/May 2015)

See the Archive Version!

1. Introduction

United Nations documentation can feel overwhelming. Researching UN documents can feel even more overwhelming. Two of the most difficult aspects of researching UN bodies, their documentation, and related international topics is the vast amount of documentation the UN produces, and the variety of places researchers should consult to be as comprehensive as possible. The complex structure of the UN often complicates the research even further. This article aims to aid researchers in deciding where to begin researching the UN documents, and it describes the most common entry points.

For a general review of the UN Library and its resources and services, consult “What’s New at the UN Library” by Susan Goard, the UN Reference Librarian who delivered a lecture on the topic in June 2019. Ms. Goard, in detail, describes the new UN Digital Library, the close-to-comprehensive UN Research Guides, and the UN Member States on the Record. Her presentation offers a well-rounded overview of the tools one can use to effectively search UN documents. It also points out the gaps that a researcher should be aware of.

The North Carolina Library Association’s Government Resources section held a webinar in April 2020 that focused on the description of the United Nations and explained the UN Official Document System and the UN Digital Library. You may watch this webinar online, in both Navigating UN Documents Part 1 and Navigating UN Documents Part 2.

2. Dag Hammarsköjld Library

“The Dag Hammarskjöld Library provides research and information services to support the participation of Member States at the United Nations. Located at UN Headquarters in New York, the Library primarily serves delegates of Permanent Missions and UN Secretariat staff.”[1]

From the inception of library services at the United Nations in 1946, the UN General Assembly “recognized that the central role of the Library as a vital tool for delegations and for the Secretariat in the execution of their tasks would, if properly implemented, ensure the creation of a highly specialized international library of unique character (A/4231).”[2]

Dag Hammarskojld Library is the UN headquarters library that provides access to all the help a researcher might need, including research guides, how to access databases and how to search the library catalog, and it also offers researchers the opportunity to submit a research question. The website itself is available in the six official UN languages and is very intuitive. Casual browsing often helps in identifying where one should begin. The main page has three basic sections: Library Resources, Digital Collections, and New Titles. More importantly, however, the menu bar above the main search box is the gateway to the library’s website.

Of note are the UN depository libraries and the UN collections under “About Us.” Under the “Research the UN” tab, researchers can find links to finding UN resources and documents, the UN Digital Library, indices to proceedings, research guides, direct access to search for speeches, and a link to the UN Member States on the Record, which is a popular resource that organizes select UN documentation by Member State. Under “Find” the UN Databases link appears, which is a page listing electronic resources by subject. Under “Help” a link to Trainings, Research Guides, and Ask DAG appears. Ask DAG is the library’s version of an FAQ on a variety of topics related to the UN, and it contains the now retired legacy database UN-I-QUE. It is a dynamic service that is continuously updated. Researchers can ask subject-specific questions (i.e.: “What is the longest speech given at the United Nations?”) or research questions (i.e.: “Where can I find information about the UN Staff Regulations and Rules?”). Scholars and researchers can search AskDAG, but if the information sought isn’t included, one can submit a question to the UN Library.

3. UN Research Guides: The Best Place to Start

The Library maintains a collection of well-structured and organized research guides. Although prominently displayed, the search box at the top of the page isn’t the most efficient way to begin. Instead, browse through the list of research guides organized into sixteen main subjects. Browsing by subject is often more efficient and faster than the search option. It should also be noted that the search box has different search facets, which often bring up results that are not always open to all users. Exploring UN resources through these research guides offers access to resources that are compiled on a specific subject, including many resources that one may not readily know about. It provides for better context because each guide starts with a brief overview of the topic and how the topic fits within the overall UN structure. It also lists relevant information and resources, even if those overlap with another guide, which increases access.

To further improve access, the library lists many research guides under multiple subjects to meet the needs of every user, regardless of how they think about a given topic. Note that the two subjects that list every research guide on the UN and its documentation are the “UN Documents” and the “United Nations” subjects. Here, researchers can find research guides dedicated to learning about the UN, its functions, its bodies, and its missions, as well as the corresponding documentation. For example, a guide to UN Documentation on Peacekeeping is listed under the “Peace & Security,” “UN Documents,” and “United Nations” subjects.

The structure of every research guide is the same. The main landing page offers a brief overview and introduction with a table of contents on the left and quick links on the right, where applicable. Under the main table of contents for each guide is an additional subdivision of each topic listed in the main table of contents, which allows researchers to clearly and quickly know what one can expect to find in each research guide. Many of the guides will also have a “Research Resources” section for each topic. Here, researchers can find relevant print and online resources that are recommended to start with. See for example, Research Resources for the Charter of the United Nations.

One can also view ALL Guides in one list. Here of interest is the UN Resource Research Guide, which lists every UN resource in a variety of ways or entry points. Resources are first listed in alphabetical order, which isn’t too useful unless one knows which resource to use. The same list can also be displayed by organization (i.e. CBD, FAO, ILO, IMO, etc.) and by topic, listing ten main topics: Commerce and Trade, Development, Disarmament, Environment, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs, International Law, Peace and Security, and Transport and Communication. The display by organization is very useful as it pulls together resources one may not be aware of, and it also pulls the resources in one place, making it easier to review than working directly with the dedicated website for the organization. The display by topics is also very useful as it provides a way to check that one consulted every source that is available from the UN on a specific topic.

Additionally, researchers may also find here “Library Catalogues,” which lists the variety of catalogues belonging to the corresponding UN libraries (i.e. SeaLibrary catalogue, UNCITRAL library catalogue, etc.), pulling together a list of places one can search individual libraries’ holdings, which would include print publications. Of interest to many may be the Statistics list which pulls together the UN-related statistical data entry points.

4. Entry Points for Research

As mentioned above, when researching the UN, one of the challenges is the amount of information. This is further complicated by the fact that there isn’t one comprehensive place where all the information lives, nor is there a single unified way to access it. Much of the UN information, documentation, and publications live in multiple places (online and in print), without a single access point. This is precisely why we often start with a research guide to help us navigate the ocean of information. The UN maintains an A-Z Resource List, linked from multiple places, which is organized in alphabetical order and is searchable by title. This list is comprehensive, but it also contains resources that are available exclusively to the UN staff.

The closest we have to a single digital access point is the Google-like UN search interface, still in its beta phase, which aggregates searching across the Official Document System (ODS), Office of Administrative Justice (OAJ), Security Council Repertoire (REP), League of Nations (LON) archive, more than 100 websites, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and the UN Social Media. After the initial search, additional post-filters appear allowing for further refining the search results. However, it isn’t comprehensive, and it does not search across all UN documents. For example, it doesn’t search across the UN Digital Library.

4.1. The United Nations Digital Library

The UN Digital Library, launched in 2017, is run by the UN Library. “The United Nations Digital Library (UNDL) includes UN documents, voting data, speeches, maps, and open access publications. The platform provides access to UN-produced materials in digital format and bibliographic records for print UN documents starting in 1979. System features include linked data between related documentation such as resolutions, meeting records and voting, and refining of searches by UN body, agency or type of document.”[3]

The UN Digital Library is an effort to create a more sustainable approach to working with UN documents and to improve the user experience. Although the process is not yet complete, the UN Digital Library is expected to absorb all the information, including metadata, from the now retired UNBISNet, the UN’s traditional online catalogue for UN materials. The Digital Library features fast and powerful searching, filtering by type document, UN body, and by agenda subject. “[It] provides access to UN-produced content including UN documents and publications and information about UN materials in the UN Library collections (metadata).”[4] One can find records with or without digital files, in addition to other metadata such as voting information for resolutions adopted by the General Assembly and the Security Council, as well as citations to speeches made in the principal organs.[5]

The interface is intuitive, offering one main search with subsequent filters or an advanced search. The interface also offers authority search, which allows users to explore the authority-controlled metadata (i.e. authors and, specialized authorities such as agenda items and series symbols) that the UN Library uses to describe the UN materials in its collection. Full-text search is off by default but can be turned on as one of the filters. Note, however, that not all documents in the Digital Library have optical character recognition (OCR) and as such researchers may miss results if relying solely on full-text searching. Other filters include resource type, UN Body, and date. The advanced search offers traditional Boolean connectors in addition to a list of fields (author, title, document symbol, agenda, year, abstract and notes, series, subject, and full text). The document symbol search truncates to the right.

The Help link at the top of the screen brings users to a full page of helpful tips and tricks on how to use this platform, what it includes, and what to expect. It includes tips on field and segment searching, faceting, sorting, and how to best conduct a full-text search. Although this is not the entire and comprehensive universe of the UN documents, the Digital Library is continuously updated.

4.2. Official Document System (ODS)

The Official Document System (ODS) is an online database of UN documents that was first launched in 1993. [It was most recently] updated in 2016. ODS has full-text, born-digital UN documents published from 1993 onward.”[6] It also includes scanned documents published between 1946 and 1993;[7] however, not all of these have the optical character recognition and thus may not come up if only full-text searching. “Documents are available in the official languages of the UN and some documents are also available in German. ODS does not include the following types of materials: documents issued prior to 1993 that have not yet been digitized, press releases, sales publications (i.e. the Yearbook), the Treaty Series, and documents that do not have a UN symbol.”[8]

The search interface offers the ability to conduct full-text and words-in-title searches, in addition to date, language, and subject fields. It also offers truncated symbol search, which is a powerful tool. One can truncate the UN symbol to the right, left, or both directions. This is a good feature to use in order to find any addendums, amendments, corrections, or revisions of a document; to learn more about the symbol system and how to effectively use UN symbols in research, see the research guide covering UN Document Symbols. The subject field contains a list of terms, a controlled vocabulary that one can use to further narrow a search.

Results are by default displayed by relevance but can be sorted by date and by symbol. Each entry includes the title, symbol, session, agenda, date, area, distribution, subjects (when applicable), and the ability to download in each of the six UN official languages. Each result has integrated social media icons for users to easily share the found information.

4.3. UN Member States on the Record

In 2019, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library launched a revamped version of the UN Member States on the Record, which is now available in all six official UN languages. The UN Member States on the Record is one of the UN’s more popular resources offering access to UN information about Member States’ participation in the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Human Rights Council. It also contains quick links to general debate statements, speeches, draft resolutions sponsored, diplomatic relations between states, and representative’s credentials for each state on the record.

4.4. Finding Tools

Much of the UN’s information has not been digitized yet. Although the digitization department of the UN Library continuously works on digitizing UN materials and adds them to the online platforms (ODS and the Digital Library), much of the UN’s documentation is still available in print only. There are two places that print documents could be found: the UN Library in New York City or Geneva, Switzerland. There are, of course, other United Nations Libraries around the world. The UN also has the UNiLibrary, which is described as a “global search, discovery, and viewing source for digital content created by the UN.”[9] It features publications, journals, data, and series published by the UN Secretariat, as well as its funds and programs. It plans to add about 500 new titles each year to the library.[10] However, not every content is open access. Some sources are open access, but many are not, requiring an annual subscription.

To find this comprehensive information for the Economic and Social Council, General Assembly (Regular session, emergency special sessions, and special session), Security Council, and the Trusteeship Council, researchers would need to use the UN finding tool Index to Proceedings. “The Index to Proceedings is an annual bibliographic guide to the proceedings and documentation of the major organs. These Indexes are prepared by the Library and are produced at the end of each session.”[11] It has two parts: subject index to the documents and the index to speeches.[12] It also includes voting charts, tables of meetings dates, and lists of resolutions adopted during a given session.[13]

Use the UN research guides to find Index to Proceedings for a given organ. For example, the UN Documentation research guide on the Security Council links to the Security Council Index to Proceedings. The more recent volumes even include embedded links to full text of documents. For many of the older years, this is often the only way to discover an existence of a document. Each index begins with short explanation on how to use it, explanation of abbreviations, tables, and other information. The Subject Index usually follows all the preliminary information. When researchers find documents in the Index that isn’t available, it is best to contact the UN Library for assistance in obtaining it.

Many libraries also offer access to the Readex Access UN, a proprietary effort to provide access to UN documentation. It is now available online, but many libraries will have the electronic finding aid and the corresponding microfiche collection of documents. This is an index of UN documents with the full text being available on the fiche. It contains resolutions from the General Assembly, Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council with bibliographic citations, and it indexes documents, records, publications by each of the six UN bodies.

4.5. HeinOnline’s United Nations Law Collection

HeinOnline offers a library titled “United Nations Law Collection.” This is a subscription database that many schools have access to. The database contains reproductions of major UN legal publications, including the complete collection of the UN Treaty Series, the League of Nations Treaty Series, the Monthly Statement of the Treaties & Agreements, UNCITRAL Publications, UNIDIR Publications, the UN Legislative Series, and more. Researchers can view all titles in the collection listed in alphabetical order, or they can browse the collection by Hein’s groupings: Treaty Publications, International Court of Justice, UNCITRAL, ITLOS, UN Yearbooks, UN Series, Codification and Progressive Development of International Law, CRS Reports, GAO Reports, Hearings, WTO Publications, UNIDIR, and more. Researchers can utilize the basic full text or advanced searches, and it has the ability to filter further the results list.

4.6. United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS)

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is the depositary of more than 560 multilateral treaties which cover a broad range of subjects such as human rights, disarmament, and protection of environment. The United Nations Treaty Collection contains information regarding the activities of the Treaty Section of the UN Office of Legal Affairs. It includes information on depository treaties, registration and publication of treaties, resources, trainings, and treaty events. The Status of Treaties pages provides authoritative and up–to-date information on the status of each of the treaties deposited with the Secretary-General. It also provides access to the League of Nations Treaty Series, Cumulative Indexes, Certified True Copies, Photos of Ceremonies, Treaty Handbook, and much more.

4.7. The Yearbook of the United Nations

The Yearbook of the United Nations is the authoritative reference on the annual activities and concerns of the United Nations. It covers international economic and social questions, and it is published by the Department of Global Communications. “Based on official UN documents, the Yearbook provides comprehensive coverage of political and security matters, human rights issues, economic and social questions, legal issues, and institutional, administrative and budgetary matters.”[14] It dates back to the 1946-47 edition when the first volume was published. It is a resource that should be consulted by researchers because it takes all major General Assembly, Security Council, and Economic and Social Council resolutions and decisions and provides a well-thought out and comprehensive analysis and overview in light of the UN’s consideration, deliberation, and action.

It is available online, where it can be browsed or searched, and results are linked directly to the yearbook pages. The results list can be displayed by pages or chapters, making it easier for researchers to work with this resource online. Final versions of the Yearbook can be delayed by several years. To gain more up-to-date information, researchers can consult the Yearbook Pre-Press, which contains “draft chapters and detailed chapter research outlines from Yearbooks currently in production.”[15] Note, however, that even the Yearbook Pre-Press is often delayed in its publication.

5. UN Archives

The United Nations Archives and Records Management is an important part of UN documentation. It ensures that historically significant records are made available for researchers. The UN Archives include paper documents, photographs, maps, films, sound recordings, electronic records, and architectural drawings.[16] The UN Archives, after receiving records, arrange and describe these records. Researchers can use its online finding tools to see what documents are included and then visit the Archives to view the records. Researchers may browse or search the UN Archives. The results display identity area, context area, conditions of access and use area for each result. In addition, a downloadable PDF finding aid is available for each result. The Archives are in New York City and are open to the public, although strict guidelines are followed when visiting. It is recommended to contact the Archives in advance to plan a visit.

The UN’s Audiovisual Library of International Law is another platform that may be of interest to many scholars and researchers. The Historic Archives provides a unique resource for teaching, studying, and researching significant legal instruments on international law. Each entry contains a scholarly introduction, information on the instrument’s procedural history, and related documents (travaux préparatoires), and the text and status of the instrument. The Lecture Series contains a permanent collection of lectures on almost every subject of international law. The Mini-Series contains lectures delivered by international law scholars offering general overviews of the core topics of international law. The Research Library provides an online library of international law materials, including treaties, jurisprudence, documents, legal publications, research guides, and other writings and trainings.

6. Staying Current

The United Nations has its own UN News Portal. Researchers can subscribe to news via email. News is divided by geographical region: Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe. News can also be browsed by topic: Peace and Security, Economic Development, Humanitarian Aid, Climate Change, Human Rights, UN Affairs, Women, Law and Crime Prevention, Health, Culture and Education, SDGs, Migrants and Refugees. These topics change as the UN’s focus changes with the world needs. This is also a good place to find information produced by the Secretary-General, including statements, selected speeches, press encounters, and official travels. The news portal is available in nine languages.

Additionally, each UN body has a news corner on their respective websites. Here researchers can find press releases, press conferences, photos, webcasts, and annual roundups. And of course, one can also follow the individual UN bodies on social media. The UN also has the UN Meetings coverage and Press Releases portal combining the UN bodies’ news into a single entry point.

[1] The Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Our Mandate & History (accessed August 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] The Dag Hammarskjöld Library, UN Resources – United Nations Digital Library (accessed August 2020).

[4] The Dag Hammarskjöld Library, United Nations Digital Library (accessed August 2020).

[5] Id.

[6] Official Document System of the United Nations, Home (accessed August 2020).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] UNiLibrary, About United Nations iLibrary (accessed August 2020).

[10] Id.

[11] The Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Index to Proceedings (accessed August 2020).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] The Yearbook of the United Nations, About the Yearbook (accessed August 2020).

[15] The Yearbook of the United Nations, Yearbook Pre-Press (accessed August 2020).

[16] United Nations Archives and Records Management, About the Archives (accessed August 2020).