United Nations Research
Updated Jan 1, 2013.
Prepared by Peggy Jarrett. Updated by Jennifer González (2013).
This guide reviews basic sources for information about the United Nations and finding publications issued by its units.
The United Nations (UN) was created in 1945 by the signing of the Charter of the United Nations. Currently, there are 193 member nations. The UN has six main organs:
- the General Assembly
- the Security Council
- the Economic and Social Council
- the Trusteeship Council
- the Secretariat
- the International Court of Justice
These main bodies may have subsidiary bodies: committees, commissions, or working groups
The UN system includes independent organizations, called "specialized agencies." These include the International Maritime Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization. For more information on researching specialized agencies, see the Gallagher guide on Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs).
Research strategies include:
- gathering background information
- checking the Law Library and UW Libraries catalogs,
- talking with Gallagher Law Library and UW Libraries Government Publications reference staff
- searching official and unofficial web resources.
The UN is a large and complicated organization, so researchers may find a bit of background helpful. A visual image of the complex the UN system may be helpful. See also:
The United Nations Today. A handbook that summarizes UN organizational structure and activities produced by the UN.
JZ4970.B37, current at Reference Office
The UN in Brief explains UN structures and functions.
The Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements, 3d ed. This four-volume compendium focuses on how the UN and its institutions work.
KZ4968.O86 2003 at Reference Area.
Yearbook of the United Nations, 1946/47-2008. Detailed account of major annual activities. Publication is slow.
JZ4947.U55 at Classified Stack and online from 1946/47 - 2007.
Marci Hoffman & Mary Rumsey, Researching the United Nations
Developed for the University of Minnesota Law Library collection.
University of Washington Government Publications has a UN research guide as a part of their International, Inter-Governmental, and Non-Governmental Collections.
Marci Hoffman & Paul Zarins, ASIL Guide to Electronic Resources for International Law: United Nations
An annotated list of official and other UN websites, CD-ROM products, and commercial online services.
United Nations Scholar's Workstation at Yale Universit
Links to a variety of research tools. Lists websites by research topic, UN organizational structure, and geographic area.
Linda Tashbrook, Researching the United Nations: Finding the Organization's Internal Resource Trails
Describes approaches for finding people, issues, entities, and treaties.
The United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library's Research Guide
Describes the types of documents available on the UN website and how to search for them, including a guide to the document symbols. At the bottom of this page are "Special Topics" that give advice on searching difficult topics, like Environment, Human Rights, and International Law (organized by the type of UN Court).
The United Nations produces an overwhelming number of documents each year. There are several types of UN documents, most notably sales publications, official records, and mimeograph/masthead documents. The Law Library selectively collects sales publications and official records on legal and law-related topics such as human rights, law of the sea, and environmental law. These can be found by searching the Law Library catalog.
Full-text of many documents may be found on UN and UN specialized agency websites.
United Nations (main site) or specialized organizations. See the Official Web Site Locator for the United Nations to find the website of a sub-organization of the UN (like the World Bank or International Trade Center). See UNTERM if you need to decipher United Nations nomenclature, technical, or specialized terms and common phrases in all six official UN languages.
UN Documentation Centre includes "Quick Links" to UN Charter, Millennium Development Goals, and UN Treaty Collection. Also allows searches of major bodies (General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, Security Council, and Secretariat) by document symbol. (MUST have UN document symbol to search!)
UNBISnet is a great place to start a search, because it allows for specific searches by any description unique to the document (author, title, document symbol, ISBN, etc.). Results will have a short record and often contain a link to the full-text of the document. This catalog includes all material held by Dag Hammerskjöld Library (both UN and non-UN) all documents after 1979, and selected documents before 1979. This website also contains complete voting records of the General Assembly and Security Council and an Index to Speeches made since 1983.
ODS, the UN's Online Documents System Search, allows searches by keyword, and then the ability to narrow by author, year, and language. The search results are listed by the document symbol that is a link to the full text and available from 1993 to current, with older documents periodically added.
UN Info Quest (UN-I-QUE) provides quick access to symbols and sales numbers of tens of thousands of selected UN documents from 1946 to date. Does not give full bibliographic citation. Created by the UN Reference Librarians to answer frequently asked questions, especially about annual or recurring documents.
e-subscriptions to United Nations Documents
Sign up to receive specific documents via email or RSS feed. Available content includes documents from the Economic and Social Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and Security Council.
The Government Publications Division of the UW Libraries is a UN depository and receives most of the official records and working documents. These documents are invaluable to the researcher, but can be difficult to access and slow to arrive. They are not accessible through the UW Libraries Catalog but through a variety of print and electronic indexes, most notably AccessUN. The collection is organized by UN call number. Reference assistance is available from Government Publications staff.
AccessUN, 1966-date, available through the UW Libraries Articles & Research Databases [UW Restricted], is an index of UN official records, resolutions, reports, proceedings, studies, and documents from selected specialized agencies. Includes links to selected full-text. UW Libraries subscribes to a companion microfiche collection of indexed documents, housed in Government Publications.
Specialized agency documents may not be distributed through the UN depository program or appear in the standard indexes. UW Government Publications collects some and maintains card files for each agency. Many specialized agencies post documents on the Internet through their own agency websites. See the Official Web Site Locator for the United Nations to find the website of a sub-organization of the UN (like the World Bank or International Trade Center).
The following sources are useful for keeping up with UN activities and business.
A quarterly magazine/journal that reports on the programs and activities of the UN, regional issues, and their objectives (like peacekeeping and human rights).
UN News Centre
Source of news from the UN News Service, including links (at bottom of front page) to UN Photo, UN Radio, UN Television, and UN Webcast.
A blog from UN Library staff highlighting current events or recently released reports. Each post includes a "resources" guide of documents available for further information.
This daily e-mail newsletter covers international news from the UN and the world from "hundreds of top international sources." It is free, but you must sign up to receive the daily email.
Journal of the UN
Provides an historical record of the UN on a particular day, including meetings and documents referenced and issued that day and a summary of the previous day. Required reading for all delegates and staff first thing in the morning. Available from 2003; choose a date for a hyper-linked PDF of the Journal.
I am looking for a specific UN Document and . . .
- I know document symbol > Start Here
- I know the title, ISBN, author, or any other identifying information > Start Here
- My document is a voting record or speech > Start Here
- My document is an agenda from a particular day after 2003 > Start Here
- My document is a recurring report > Start Here
Highlights from a particular year > Start Here
Recurring documents > Start Here