UPDATE: Researching League of Nations Documents
By Gabriela Femenia
Gabriela Femenia is Associate Director for Collections and Foreign and International Law Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Biddle Law Library. She received her JD from the University of Pennsylvania and her MLIS from the University of Washington. In addition, she holds degrees in History from the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University.
Published November/December 2020
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Types of Material Produced by the League of Nations
- 3. League of Nations Document Numbering Systems
- 4. Sources for Documents
- 5. Research Guides
- 6. References
As the precursor to the United Nations, the League of Nations (1919-1946) is of interest to researchers concerned with the historical and institutional development of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), the expansion of public international law, the establishment of modern treaty protocols and practices, and the evolution of the concepts of international cooperation and justice. League of Nations documents can be greatly useful sources for legal scholarship, but the complex nature of the documentation can also be a source of frustration.
This guide is intended to provide a starting point for finding and using League of Nations documents. Additional guidance can be found by consulting the research guides and publications listed below. Please note that research into the autonomous institutions affiliated with the League, such as the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Labour Organization, is not included in this guide, being well-covered elsewhere.
The League of Nations was composed of several organizations, each of which regularly issued and/or was presented with documents of various kinds. The principal organs of the League of Nations were the Assembly, the Council and the Secretariat.
The Assembly was the representative body consisting of all member states and met annually in plenary session to address matters affecting world peace, and to oversee budgeting, the admission of new members, and the election of non-permanent members to the Council. In addition, the six main Committees of the Assembly met in separate sessions concerning their respective jurisdictions.
The Council, consisting of a varying number of permanent and nonpermanent members meeting in ordinary session three times per year and, as necessary, extraordinary and/or secret sessions, oversaw the resolution of international disputes.
The Permanent Secretariat was responsible for the general administration of the League’s work, and was tasked with the printing, distribution and indexing of the League’s documents.
Technical organizations could also be established to carry out the League’s mandates. Examples of technical organizations include the Economic and Financial Organization, which analyzed and addressed the post-World War I financial crises, and the Health Organization, which investigated health problems worldwide, coordinated national health efforts, promoted large-scale vaccination drives, and ultimately became the current World Health Organization.
Similarly, the committees and commissions were organized to conduct the principal organs’ mandates, and conferences were periodically held to advance the League’s mission.
League of Nations material can be classified into types: official documents, sales publications, and archival records. Knowing a document’s type can assist the researcher in both accessing and using it.
Sales Publications were reports, records and other material considered by the League to be of wide enough interest to be publicly distributed for sale. As a result, these documents are more easily found in libraries than other types of League of Nations material.
Documents comprise the administrative work of the League of Nations and were issued by the various organs, committees and conferences. Documents were distributed only to member nations and depository libraries, and are therefore less widely held by libraries, although some documents were eventually also circulated as sales publications. Conversely, some documents were designated confidential and most were not officially published or publicly circulated at all, although some were subsequently declassified.
League of Nations documents were labeled with identifying numbers and symbols, much as United Nations documents currently are. As the numbering schemes for League of Nations documents varied by type of document and issuing body, and because the schemes also changed over time, it is important for the researcher to be familiar with the possible numbering of a document in order to be able to find it in an available source.
Beginning in 1926, sales publications were assigned a sales number, containing an indicator of the year of publication and the subject matter. For example, 1940.VII.1 is a report to the High Commissioner published in 1940, classified within the “Political” category, and issued as the first publication within that category that year. Since sales publications were ordinarily first published as documents, the majority of sales documents were also marked with the official document number.
The League’s documents were assigned document numbers identifying the year of publication, the issuing or receiving organization, the serial number of the document, and the subject matter. The system changed multiple times during the course of the League’s history, thereby complicating the research process.
Prior to November 1919, League of Nations documents were marked with a three-element number designating the year the document was produced, the type of document, and a serial number, e.g. 19/4/3 was issued in 1919, by the Council (4), as its third document of the year.
From 1919 to 1921, document numbers generally used the format year (final two digits)/distribution/serial number. For example, 20/29/1 was issued in 1920 and distributed to the Council (29) as the first document of the year. Additional designations could be provided, such as “M” for minutes or “A” for appendices.
Between 1921 and 1947, documents distributed to the Council and Assembly were marked with official numbers offering further detail and usually following the format C.515.M.197.1927.XII, a Council document (C), the 515th distributed to the Council in 1927 but 197th distributed to non-Council members (M) of the League that year, which concerned intellectual cooperation (XII). Documents issued by committees or conferences instead received committee and conference numbers, e.g. C.H.197 (the 197th publication of the Health Committee), although documents sent to the Assembly or Council from these bodies would also later be assigned official numbers.
Given the evolving nature of the League’s document number schemes, researchers are advised to consult one of the research guides or publications below for further explanations and examples. Of particular helpfulness is the archived version of Northwestern University Library’s Research Guide to League of Nations Documents and Publications, as it provides reference charts for each evolution of the League’s document numbering practices.
Archival materials originally held by the League Registry and now held by the UNOG Library were classified separately from sales publications and documents. Researchers interested in using this material are advised to contact the Archives for assistance, although its catalog can be searched to determine the Archives’ holdings in a given area.
League of Nations documents have been less extensively digitized than documents of more recently established international organizations, although the League of Nations Archives’ Total Digital Access to the League of Nations Archives Project (LONTAD) is working toward fully digitizing the Archives’ holdings, and when complete will provide free access to approximately 15 million pages. Until that project is completed, the researcher can access a significant quantity of material online, although not always from freely accessible resources.
Most well-stocked research libraries will hold in print a selection of League of Nations sales publications. Many will have its Official Journal, which reproduced minutes of the Council, text of reports and resolutions, and a variety of other material, with special supplements incorporating Assembly minutes and other documents. The Treaty Series, which published international agreements sponsored by the League, is also widely held.
Some libraries will also hold the microfilm collection, League of Nations Documents and Publications, 1919-1946, produced by Research Publications, Inc. in 1973. This collection contains over 25,000 documents produced by the League, arranged by subject, across 555 reels.
A number of helpful indexes, bibliographies and guides exist to help the researcher identify League of Nations documents of interest by subject, providing title, date and document number information, which can then be used to locate the item in an available library. For example, the two-volume League of Nations Documents, 1919-1946: A Descriptive Guide and Key to the Microfilm Collection edited by Edward A. Reno is an essential tool for navigating the microfilm collection. Some also reproduce key documents in full. See References below for full information on key guides to League material.
The Official Journal of the League of Nations and its Treaty Series are available on the subscription database, HeinOnline within its Law Journal Library and United Nations Law Collection respectively. Documents in these collections are available to the researcher in PDF format, as they appeared in print, and can be located by keyword, title, and number.
League of Nations treaties can also be researched and downloaded in PDF format at no cost from the League of Nations Treaty Series database and at no cost via the United Nations Treaty Collection site. Selected founding documents of the League are freely available, in HTML format, at the Avalon Project website of Yale Law School.
The League of Nations Research Guide of the UNOG Library provides a list of access points to materials digitized from the League of Nations Archives. The League of Nations Statistical and Disarmaments Documents digital library produced by Northwestern University Library contains the full text of 260 League of Nations statistical publications and documents related to international disarmament, scanned to PDF format. This collection can be browsed by year, title, and sales number, or searched by keyword.
While it does not digitize League documents, the League of Nations Search Engine (LONSEA) database created by Heidelberg University uses League of Nations source material to demonstrate the interconnectedness of international organizations in text and visual formats.
Additional tips on researching League of Nations material can be found in the following research guides:
- United Nations Archives Geneva, Research Guides: League of Nations
- Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Oxford LibGuides: League of Nations
- Harvard College Library, League of Nations Documents
- Peace Palace Library, Research Guides: International Organizations and Relations: League of Nations
- Yale University Library, Government Documents and Information: League of Nations
- Government and Geographic Information and Data Services Department, Northwestern University Library, Research Guide to League of Nations Documents and Publications (archived)
- Hans Aufricht, Guide to League of Nations Publications: A Bibliographical Survey of the Work of the League, 1920-1947(1966).
- Mary Eva Birchfield, Consolidated Catalog of League of Nations Publications Offered for Sale (1976).
- Marie J. Carroll, Key to League of Nations Publications Placed on Public Sale, 1920-1929 (1929) (and later supplements).
- Victor-Yves Ghebali and Catherine Ghebali,A Repertoire of League Serial Documents, 1919-1947(1973).
- Michael McCaffrey-Novis, The League of Nations, in International Information: Documents, Publications and Electronic Information of International Government Organizations139-162 (Peter I. Hajnal ed., 1997).
- League of Nations Documents, 1919-1946: A Descriptive Guide and Key to the Microfilm Collection (Edward A. Reno ed., 2d ed. 1973-1975).