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UN Documents in National Archives
Sonja Matter, University of Berne, Switzerland, December 2011

Even before setting foot in the archive, historians probably always have some diffuse imaginations of the sources they will find there. Concerning my research project on the history of social work in Switzerland I also had some ideas right from the start: I imagined, for instance, that the Federal Archives of Switzerland kept governmental documents in this field dating back to the early 20th century. This presumption proved to be wrong. The relevant sources were, to a big part, no older than 60 years and dated mainly from the post-war period. Moreover, they were largely not produced by the Swiss national administration but by the Technical Assistance Office of the United Nation in Geneva. This came as a surprise but was of course no coincidence. Rather, the archival situation reflected the significance that international actors as the UN on the one hand and national governments on the other hand had assigned to social work as a profession.

The sources I found were manifold. First, the Federal Archives of Switzerland held records on diverse programs and target agreements that the UN had developed to advance social work worldwide and that were propagated to the national governments. Second, I found the correspondence and negotiations between UN officials and members of the Swiss administration. Thirdly, the archive kept the application letters of Swiss social workers to receive an UN scholarship to study abroad as well as their reflections on their stay abroad.

UN sources kept in national archives inevitably highlight distinct aspects of the history of this international organisation: the interactions and relations between the UN and nation states are certainly one dominant strand that can be reconstructed. Thereby, a gender perspective may be fruitful. International organisations opened up, as the UN programs for social work demonstrate, new career possibilities for women that contested traditional gender hierarchies in national administrations. Additionally, from a transnational perspective, processes of reception and implementation can be examined along with the question of the impact of UN programs on a national level. As was the case in Switzerland, the UN program sustainably changed the professionalization process in the field of social work. Last but not least, UN sources in national archives help historians to test out diverse historical approaches: alongside transnational and gender perspectives, approaches inspired by historical anthropology might also prove fruitful. To reconstruct to experience of people who had participated in UN programs and to ask how UN provisions affected the life of “ordinary people” certainly is an exciting task. When I read the reports of the women who had studied abroad with an UN scholarship, I learned more about these social workers then I could have possibly imagined before entering the archive.