Lyo Louis-Jacques on "The State of Digitization of United Nations Documents"

The State of Digitization of United Nations Documents
Lyonette Louis-Jacques
June 29, 2010

Almost two decades have passed since the United Nations began digitizing its documents. The UN started the Official Document System (ODS) as a pilot project in 1992, and officially launched it in 1993. Since then, there has been an explosion of UN documents and publications available in electronic format from a variety of sources, for free and via subscription. I recently checked the current status of UN documentation online, and here’s what I found. And what I expected to find, and didn’t. And some worrisome developments.

Discovery Tools

UNBISnet, the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library bibliographic information system, indexes e-versions of UN documents and is a great starting point for finding them as you can search by the traditional library catalog access points and UN document symbol. AccessUN is a subscription database that indexes UN documents, and includes external links to free e-versions. PDFs of some UN documents are Google-able, and Bing-able. You can sometimes find random volumes from sets such as the Yearbook of the International Law Commission digitized in Google Books.

Official Document System of the United Nations (ODS)

The ODS database includes formally-published UN parliamentary documents from 1993 to date, and all UN resolutions (from the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and Trusteeship Council) back to 1946 in PDF format. The majority of the documents can be found in six languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. For the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), documents related to its drafting history from 1946-1948, the “travaux préparatoires”, were added to the ODS.

The ODS database does not include UN publications and sales documents, the United Nations Treaty Series (UNTS), press releases, public information materials, and “non-papers”. The ODS has multiple search interfaces and includes the ability to search by UN document symbol. It does not have browseability options, however. The UN’s “Documents” page provides that feature for selected UN bodies.

The UN aims to retrospectively digitize older documents. These documents are being scanned and added daily. The UN reached a major milestone in this effort in 2009 when it added Security Council documents from 1946-1992 to the ODS. However, S/AC and other subsidiary SC documents are not online. The UN now is prioritizing adding older General Assembly official records and meeting records. Pre-1993 Economic and Social Council documents (though selected documents of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, E/CN.4/Sub.2, seem to be in the ODS from 1949 to date) and the Trusteeship Council remain to be digitized.

I somehow expected the ODS to be a central hub for all digitized UN documents and publications, so there would be one place to check for them, but it is not. The ODS is easy to search, but it is not easy to link directly to documents therein from the library catalog.