Researching the United Nations: Finding the Organization’s Internal Resource Trails

By Linda Tashbook

Linda Tashbook is the Foreign International Comparative Law Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s Barco Law Library, a Fulbright Senior Specialist, and an attorney in private practice. Prior to becoming the foreign and international librarian, she was the Barco Law Library’s Electronic Services Librarian. Before law school, she worked as a public librarian. Her Juris Doctor and Master of Library Science degrees are from the University of Pittsburgh. Her Bachelor of Science degree is from Texas Woman’s University.

Published October 2005

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The United Nations is such a massive organization that its wide array of processes and products require enough reference sources to warrant a map and compass for navigation. As a map, here are suggested search techniques for several standard types of queries and, as a compass, here are the U.N.’s many diverse search tools organized into resource types.

Standard Queries

Types of research tools

For more information about the search tools and primary sources that are published by the U.N., peruse some research guides by non-U.N. entities.

To locate or investigate someone involved with the UN

To investigate an issue that the U.N. works on

  • Use the document research guides for each of the UN’s broad categories of UN work:
  • Peace & Security Documents Research Guide
  • Economic & Social Development Reports & Databases
  • Human Rights Documents Research Guide
  • International Law Documents Research Guide
  • Select from the list of Issues on the U.N. Agenda. Once you are in the Web page for the particular issue, you will see tabs at the top of the screen for research tools including “documents”, “events”, “learning”, and “speeches” which all have important information.
  • Use your browser’s edit and find functions to jump through the alphabetical list of U.N. organizations using the names of places or subject words. Once in any of those organization pages, click on the link to publications.
  • Look through the list of U.N. news outlets to find any that follow the topic you are investigating.
  • See if there is specialized topical research guide produced by a unit of the U.N.

To find out about the work of a particular U.N. entity

  • Look in UNBISnet using the name of the committee, office, organization, council, etc… as a keyword phrase. Using the committee’s name as author does not usually yield thorough results in this particular database.
  • Browse through the alphabetical list of U.N. organizations. The committees are usually components of the organizations in this list. So, you will have to navigate.
  • Use the index to the U.N. Website to search for the committee by name or else by the main areas of its work.
  • Follow the leads on this page for locating U.N. documents and use words from the committee name as search terms.

To research a treaty deposited with the U.N.

  • Subscribe to the U.N. Treaty Collection which “contains the texts of over 50,000 bilateral and multilateral treaties and subsequent treaty actions in their authentic language(s), along with a translation into English and French, as appropriate.” The subscription costs a relatively minimal fee, depending on what type of institution is subscribing, to offset database maintenance expenses. Full subscription information is available here.
  • Select a topic on the Documents by Global Issue page to get to the main international agreements involved with that topic.
  • Read the decisions of the International Court of Justice interpreting the treaty that interests you.
  • The International Law Commission has drafts of related conventions and helpful explanations about the work of codifying international law.
  • The U.N. Office of Legal Affairs provides technical assistance and general information about treaties: stages in the treaty-making process, instructions for joining into an agreement and registering it, a treaty reference guide, and U.N. requirements and practices for treaty making.
  • Search for press releases about the treaty.

Glossaries for UN functions

Finding Official Operating Documents of UN entities:

  • Research Guide – tells about the types of documents produced by the U.N. and any symbols or techniques necessary for understanding those documents.
  • Official Document System – a collection of parliamentary writings and other administrative records.
  • U.N. Documents Centre – a browsing table showing the main bodies of the U.N. with hyperlinks to all of the records, decisions, press releases, etc… produced by each.
  • Landmark General Assembly Documents – digitized versions of prominent documents from the organization’s history.

Topical research guides & resource collections compiled by UN entities

This list is only intended to contain true finding aides that point to assorted information sources in a subject area. An alternative way to find subject-based resources is to click on the ‘Publications’ link on the home page of any U.N. department or other office or program.

  • ReliefWeb– Natural disasters and complex emergencies from OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs).
  • Refugees – demographics, health issues, national policies, livelihoods…from the UNCHR (Commission on Human Rights).
  • Food & Agriculture – descriptive alphabetical listing of more than fifty databases about planting, growing, and producing food (From FAO the Food and Agriculture Organization).
  • Nutrition – country studies, policy papers, news from SCN (the Standing Committee on Nutrition).
  • Nuclear Science – access to databases, statistics, and information services from IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association).
  • Labor & Employment– conventions, journals, statistics, studies, etc… from the ILO (International Labor Organization).
  • Labor Law – child labor, comparative national laws, international law pathfinders from the ILO
  • Women– Women Watch guide to resources on gender equality and empowerment.
  • Children– studies, statistics, and numerous databases about child welfare from UNICEF (the UN Children’s Emergency Fund).
  • Globalization & Sustainable Development – a browsing database of reports about employment, technology, globalization, and other economics issues from the Global Program.
  • Economics & Development – research, prospects, and data about education, business, and sociology in individual countries and regions from the World Bank.
  • Investment Disputes – reports, treaties, cases, and bibliographic references from the World Bank.
  • Financial Management – research about investments, banking, currency control, and other fiscal matters from the International Monetary Fund.
  • World Trade – digital library of primary and analytical sources from UNCTAD (Conference on Trade and Development).
  • Environment – resources organized for categories of researchers: governments, businesses, scientists, children, & journalists from UNEP (Environmental Program).
  • Climate– national reports, primary documents, “issues quickfinder,” technology from UNFCCC (Framework Convention on Climate Change).
  • Maritime issues – (click on link to information and then Infogate) resources about shipping, marine safety, piracy, ocean pollution…from the IMO (International Maritime Organization).
  • Illegal Drugs – trends, country reports, criminal law enforcement data and analysis from UNODC (Office of Drugs and Crime).
  • U.N. Public Information – answers to the most commonly asked questions about U.N. programs and services for schools and public visitors.

Guides to U.N. Research made by non-U.N. entities

  • Index to Speeches (Library)
  • Press Releases (public information)
  • UNBISnet – The U.N. Bibliographic Information System serves as a portal as well the catalog of all U.N. publications and other holdings in the U.N. library. All Web versions of U.N. publications can be accessed from this site.
  • UN-I-QUE – (U.N. Info Quest) searchable index database of regularly published reports. Search results show proper titles, publication dates, U.N. classification numbers and, occasionally, hyperlinks for documents.
  • Infonation– Comparative and collective statistics for all U.N. member countries on many issues.

Database Training Manuals

Directories of UN staff and components: (a list in order by location, topic, and entity)

These directories primarily list national representatives who participate in the named entities. Where possible, staff directories are also linked. Generic “contact us” links are purposely omitted because those are not informational in themselves and they can already be efficiently located.

Units subsidiary to the General Assembly:

Units under the Security Council:

Units under the Economic and Social Council: (This list only includes the units that have online directories.)

International Court of Justice