The United Nations is involved in every aspect of international life - from peace-keeping to the environment, from children's rights to air safety. ... The UN system generates an enormous amount of information on some of the most pressing issues the world faces ... press releases, video and photographic footage, publications, briefing papers, etc.
Samir Sanbar, A Guide to Information at the United Nations.
United Nations documents are a recognized authority for any number of international issues: social, legal and political. You certainly will not be chastised for quoting United Nations statistics.
Critical to research, the UN is a collection of almost autonomous organizations (called organs) with occasionally overlapping responsibilities, distinct websites, and recorded as distinct publishers. If you are unfamiliar with the work of the UN, start with this US State Dept. summary and the UN website.
UN Internet Resources
I am not a big supporter for surfing the web as research, and unfortunately the UN website (www.un.org) is just too big for casual research. It is interesting but the site suffers from the same ailment of all large websites: lots of information but not enough answers.
the United Nations International Organizations Network Search. Unions is a meta-search engine of many UN websites and works beautifully. Unions also offers a simple directory. Here is a much-simplified Unions gateway.
You may also wish to visit the UN's Official WebSite Locator (www.unsystem.org), especially their alphabetic list of UN organizations and the UNDCP alternative list of UN related websites with second level links. Here are the websites to some of the more prominent UN organs:
- World Health Organization (WHO) www.who.ch.
- United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) www.undp.org.
- World Trade Organization (WTO) www.wto.org.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) www.unhcr.ch.
- United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) www.unicef.org.
- International Labour Organization (ILO) www.ilo.org.
- Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) www.fao.org.
- United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) www.unesco.org.
The UN Press Release database, a part of the UN News Center, stretches back to October 1995. The search is flexible with a range of field searches, including a very good category search, available from the UN Press Release search page. Keep in mind these are press releases to UN activities, 6 or so a day, several thousand in total.
Full text field
As a phrase
Press Releases after (MM-DD-YYYY)
Can go back to 10-13-1995. Accepts and, or, not, near/5 and many more
The UN website (www.un.org) is organized to present information on a vast array of projects coordinated by the UN from land mines to human rights. This is good for an overview. Start with the UNHQ website search. This will not search documents on other UN websites though - for this, use UNIONS or visit the website direct. You will also encounter The UN Info Quest (UN-I-QUE) database, a tool much too simple to be useful here.
Setting aside the many UN organs like the IMF, WorldBank, ..., the United Nations publishes documents in two formats. Firstly, there are the Sales Documents the UN offers for sale: bound, compiled, descriptive and very informative. Sales Documents have a UN sales document number in addition to a UN document number. The second type of document is the Masthead or UNDoc Series Documents - official records to events in the UN: unbound, brief, stapled pages that include briefing papers, committee reports and records of policy decisions. UNDoc documents are primary resources with just a UN document number.
UN Sales Documents and UNDOC Series Documents: secondary compilations and primary documents. Many libraries purchase and catalogue some UN Sales Documents on the public shelves. UNDOC Series Documents can only be found at designated UN Depository Libraries.
UN Sales Documents
UNCAPS (uncaps.unsystem.org) is a unified library catalogue to many UN libraries. It includes the big UNBISnet database (covering the UN publications in the depository archives) but also includes further documents held in other UN libraries. The result is a search of as many UN and UN-organ related documents as practical. (UNBISnet covers UN proper, not UN organs listed as separate publishers). Unfortunately, the list includes everything produced by the UN, Sales documents, UNDoc Series documents and non-UN documents in these libraries all together - without removal of duplicates. This little service is very well connected, with concise links to everything involved in searching the many UN specialty libraries.
If you are definitely not interested in UNDoc Series Documents, we can do an approximate search with the help of the Guided Keyword Search of the Library of Congress Online Catalogue (catalog.loc.gov). This script partly automates this process. Enter a simple general keyword (GKEY stands for General Keyword search), then select from the likely UN bodies (or search all three separately). Approximate UN Sales Document Search:
UN and ILO
WHO and FAO
IMF and World Bank.
If successful, click "full record" to get further details. Limits may be added at any time and there are plenty of general help files.
UN Series Documents (Masthead Documents).
The UN publishes a vast amount of unbound information only found in UN depository libraries.
S/1997/742/Add.1, Report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara: a brief breakdown of the estimated costs for completing the voter identification process in Western Sahara.
Most documents are a few stapled pages with little more than a letterhead as an introduction. Other documents have wider appeal...
E.96.I.5, The United Nations and the International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, UN Blue Book Series
S/1997/742/Add.1, Abortion Policies: A Global Review, Population studies No. 129: A three volume, 650 page country-by-country look at abortion.
300+ shelves of documents like these rest at each of the United Nations Depository Libraries.
300 shelves? The United Nations even had to develop a whole new cataloguing scheme to keep things in place! Their initial printed index, the UNDOC - Current Index - subject guide, was not cumulative and is no longer produced. So how do we find anything?
UN Depository Libraries
There are over 359 UN depository libraries in 141 countries.
Please touch the map to locate the UN archives close to you. The original alphabetical country list resides on the UN website.
And yet the UN is not a single publisher. The documents mentioned aboveMany documents are released by their respective UN organs, like the FAO, the IMF, the WorldBank and UNICEF. Not all of their publications will find their way into the primary UN library catalogues (and thus the UNBISnet database). If you are not careful, publications released by these distinct UN organs will slip through your fingers.
To successfully find these organs, we have a collection of alternative resources to consider.
Joint Bank-Fund Library Network. These fourteen World Bank and International Monetary Fund libraries work together to provide information services and resources to World Bank and IMF staff. As a database called JOLIS
There are also publication catalogues for each UN organ. Here is the publication catalogue for the World Bank.
5 Ways to find UN Information
1_ UNBISnet (Online!) and the UNBIS Plus Database
The UN Bibliographic Information System (UNBISnet at unbisnet.un.org) is the bibliographic database for the UN Libraries in New York (Dag Hammarskj÷ld Library) and Geneva (UNOG). This database corresponds closely to the contents of each UN depository library. UNBISnet is ONLINE, UNBIS Plus is the CD-ROM version at each UN depository library. Start a search with the Multiple Index Searching.
2_ The Historical: UNDOC - Current Index - subject guide,
Vital to finding historical documents (since the UN archives stretch back into the 1950's), this directory ceased publication at the end of 1996 to be replaced by the UNBISnet and UNBIS Plus database. Available in Title, Author and Subject Indexes (and surprisingly well organized as subject), these came out quarterly and were not cumulative. You will need to page through each quarterly index for however far back you wish to look. This is not as cumbersome as you may imagine, and if the subject is well defined, a quite rewarding way to spend 20 minutes.
3_ United Nations Periodicals,
The United Nations Chronicle (quarterly of 80+pages) and the larger Yearbook of the United Nations summarize the current activities of the UN. Both include the specific UNDoc numbers to further documents that provide more depth for each issue. These periodicals will lead you further to the documents of importance - particularly topics with news potential.
The United Nations Chronicle, at just US$25/year, is an upbeat informative magazine (order here). Select articles of the UN Chronicle appear online.
4_ Focused Indexes,
Annual indexes exist for the work of the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic & Social Council and Trusteeship Council. Additional sales documents summarize resources in a particular field, like these reference guides at the Dag Hammarskj÷ld Library. There is no good list of all topic-guides but there are many bibliographies produced.
5_ Press Release Database, UN News Center and UN Websites,
If the event is current news, then both the press release database and the UN News Center should be consulted. It would be too soon for the release of print publications, though conceivably website material may become available.
UN Document Symbols
The UN document symbol system is apparently a valuable tool for locating further UN information. Document symbols like ST/LIB/SER.B/5/Rev.3 can be broken down to describe a document's origin. This is not a simple tool but is explained further in the United Nations Documentation:Research Guide: Document Symbols.
If you are working frequently with UN documents, you may also wish to focus on a particular UN organ. There are many UN organs, with occasionally overlapping responsibilities, so this is probably unwise for most searches. A Guide to Information at the United Nations (Sales Document Number: E.95.I.4) describes each UN organ concisely.
5 Second Summary:
UNIONS is a brilliant search of UN websites.
UNCAPS is a fine collection of UN library holdings. UNBISnet is a workable database to the UN publications.
Consider also UN periodicals and focused indexes.
Trouble with Age
UN publications do suffer serious time lags. The best documents appear well after the curve of public interest. Primary UNDOC documents will take up to 6 months before becoming available at a UN depository library and the Sales Documents are compiled after this. On the positive side, UN archives frequently extend back to the 1950s.
To find more recent information, consider the UN periodicals and the web. The press release database may lead you to more recent activities.