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by David Allen, Columbia University

The archives of internationalism are scattered across the globe. Information on them can be very hard to find, so this guide has been prepared both to show scholars what is available and to help them start their research.

The physical archives of the United Nations and other international organizations are quickly being digitised, but remain scattered and difficult to navigate. Digitization and improved practice are leading to greater ease of use. This renewed focus is symbolized by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a video for the UN Archives and Records Management Section (UNARMS), in which he states that archives hold ‘the key to our human story’.

They are also the key to a new breed of international history which focuses less on relations between nation states, and more on international organizations, NGOs, and transnational or cultural forces. Using the archives of internationalism is vital to this new history, which attempts ‘to transcend both the institutional history of the United Nations system and the predominant state- and nation-centred historical research.’ As Professor Emma Rothschild has written,

'These records and archives of international administration are sensationally unromantic in the nineteenth-century historians’ sense, or Ranke’s sense, of documents in archives as “so many princesses, possibly beautiful, all under a curse and needing to be saved. They have very little of the twentieth-century historians’ sensuousness of archives, very little of the disorientation, the “suspended state of impressionability” into which historians enter, in entering into the lives of other people. The archives of international organizations look like conference rooms, or depositories of commission reports, or screens full of sentences. “In a memorandum laid before us by the Technical Sub-Committee there is a sentence which sounds like a sigh,” a Danish delegate said in the UNESCO meeting of 1946… The archives of the UN are full of sentences that sound like sighs. But so too is the real world of internationalism.'

The study of truly international history is still in its infancy. One practitioner, Matthew Connelly, says that he wonders ‘whether the reason is that it requires slogging through archives – not just those of India [or other nation-states], but of many international and nongovernmental organizations. When I work in the archives of the World Bank or the World Health Organization or the Ford Foundation, I find myself virtually alone.’

This guide aims to provide guidance on the archives of all major international organizations, as well as major personalities such as UN Secretaries-General, by acting as a portal to other websites and by giving information such as location, access rights, contact details, and so on, in order that the sighs of international organizations might be more clearly heard.

As it is nominally responsible for the archives of all international organisations, the UNESCO website is the best place to start any research. In 2009, a joint project between UNESCO and the International Council on Archives, Section of Archivists of International Organizations (ICA/SIO) led to the creation of UNESCO’s ‘Guide to Archives of International Organizations’. The guide gives information for around 80 organizations, including non-UN bodies. However, it is out of date in some areas, and this guide should be taken as a more usable first port of call unless stated otherwise.

UNESCO used to administer an Archives Portal, but this is no longer accessible online. You can subscribe to a UNESCO e-mail list to learn more about the future of the Portal. This development makes the list of archives available on the UN History Project more vital than ever to find the archives of international institutions. The London School of Economics hosts a community-review site with tips for archives around the world at its 'Archives Made Easy' page. The page was last edited in 2010 so some information may be out of date; there are relatively few entries on international institutions. At the time of writing, the American Historical Association's Archives Wiki is very far from complete, but should develop over time.

The UN itself provides a page of links under the title 'UN System Libraries'. There is a difference, however, between UN libraries and archives held at UN offices: most of the libraries hold only published materials relevant to the part of the world in which they are situated. This database deals only with locating primary source material, whether manuscript or audiovisual, in physical archives: there are databases for online resources here on this website. However, the central page of the UN Official Documents System is very useful for important published documents, resolutions, and so on.

Centralised as some papers of interest are, national archives and university collections might still be the best place to research internationalism, especially as many people’s associations with international bodies are fleeting. In that sense, studying international history in this vein can require a good deal of detective work.

If you work for an international organization, which is not featured here, please get in touch.

Useful Links

UN Archives and Records Management Section
UN Archives and Records Management Section Links
UN Documentation: Research Guide
UN Official Documents System UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Project
UNESCO Guide to Archives of International Organizations
International Council on Archives (ICA)
Centre for History and Economics report on UN Archives (2002)

LSE ‘Archives Made Easy’ Project


AHR Conversation: On Transnational History,’ American Historical Review, Vol. 111 No. 5 (December 2006), pp. 1441-1464.
Amrith, Sunil, Declonozing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930-65 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
Anderson, Carol, Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Connelly, Matthew, ‘Seeing Beyond the State: The Population Control Movement and the Problem of Sovereignty,’ Past and Present, No. 193 (November 2006), pp. 197-223.
Mazower, Mark, ‘The Strange Triumph of Human Rights 1933-1950,’ Historical Journal 47, No. 2 (2004), pp. 379-398.
Nehring, Holger, ‘UN Sources concerning Germany: A Guide to Archives and Research,’ Center for History and Economics Website, last accessed January 1, 2012.
Rothschild, Emma, ‘The Archives of Universal History,’ Journal of World History, Vol. 19 No. 3 (2008), pp. 375-401.