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Georgetown Law Library

United Nations Research Guide

This guide will suggest background resources and tips on navigating United Nations documents.

United Nations Documents

Table of Contents

Distinguishing UN Documents from UN Publications

UN documents are produced primarily for internal use to support the day-to-day operations of the UN's principle organs and bodies, whereas publications are produced primarily for external use by individuals and organizations outside the UN system.  A second key distinction is that each document is assigned a document number under the UN's classification system, which serves as a unique identifier.  These numbers are not assigned to publications. 

Many of the UN's internal working documents are of interest to a wider audience, and some types of documents are routinely made available to the public.  Bear in mind, however, that significant time lags may occur before certain types of internal documents are released to the public, and some documents are not publicly disclosed.

Document Types

There are two broad categories of UN documents, which are described below.

Official Records

Each of the UN's principle organs publishes an Official Record, in which are compiled the final versions of the documents that record its most significant activities and initiatives.  All such documents are designated as "official records" on the title page, making them easy to identify.  

  • The Official Record (compilation of the most important documents) of each principle organ of the UN is usually referred to by its acronym: 
    • GAOR (General Assembly)
    • SCOR (Security Council)
    • ESCOR (Economic & Social Council)
    • TCOR (Trusteeship Council - no longer active)
  • The following sub-categories of documents are part of each principle organ's Official Record:
    • Meeting Records
    • Resolutions and Decisions
    • Reports of Major Committees

Parliamentary Documents

"Parliamentary documents" is a catchall term that encompasses all other internal documents not designated as official records, including "working documents," "mimeodocuments," "sessional documents," and "masthead documents."

Note that while a preliminary draft of a document may be classified as a parliamentary document, the final version may be classified as an official record.  For example, a preliminary draft of a resolution to be introduced in the Security Council would be considered a parliamentary document, but the final version that is debated and put to a vote becomes part of the Security Council's Official Record.  Each version of the resolution will be assigned its own unique document number.

The distinction between official records and parliamentary documents is still relevant to legal researchers for two reasons. 

  • First, the Official Record that is compiled for each principle UN organ is still published in print, although individual records also are available in PDF format, whereas parliamentary documents are now born-digital (as PDFs) and rarely appear in print. 
  • Second, The Bluebook still prefers that citations be made to print sources.  So if there are multiple versions of a UN document, you should try to cite to the final version that is compiled in the Official Record for the relevant UN organ, if possible.  See Bluebook Rules 21.7 and 21.7.1 for details.

Document Numbers & Classification

Like other large intergovernmental organizations, the UN employs a complex system of document classification that can be baffling to those who are unfamiliar with it.  The Office of Document Control assigns each document a number, also known as a document symbol, which serves as a unique identifier. A document number consists of a series of distinct segments, also known as components or elements, each of which conveys information about the source or function of the document.  They are described in the table below.

Document Segment Description
First (Lead) Element Identifies the principal UN organ (or the parent organ of the subsidiary body) that created the document.
Second Element Identifies the subordinate body, if any, involved in the creation of the document.
Third & Fourth Elements Identify the relevant sub-unit(s) (commission, committee, sub-committee, working group, etc.).
Year or G.A. Session Number Indicates the year during which the document was created.  For documents created by the General Assembly and its subordinate bodies, the session number of the General Assembly is often used instead of the year.
Additional Element Indicates the nature and function of the document (minutes, report, summary, working paper, etc.)
Final Element Indicates any changes or additions to the original text (addendum, appendix, revision, etc.)

Each document segment contains at least one letter, or a series of letters and numbers, which are known as symbols.  The following table lists the symbols used in the first segment of a document number to denote the principal organ of the UN associated with the document in question.

First Element Symbol
(Lead Symbol)
Principal Organ of the UN Represented by the Symbol
A/- General Assembly
S/- Security Council
E/- Economic and Social Council
ST/- UN Secretariat

A small number of UN bodies have their own special series symbol (lead element), which does not reflect the parent organ.  They include the following:

Special Series Symbol UN Body Represented by the Special Series Symbol
CRC/C/- Committee on the Rights of the Child
DP/- UN Development Programme
TD/- UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
UNEP/- UN Environment Programme

For more information about the formatting of UN document numbers, including how subsequent document segments are formatted, consult this Guide to UN Document Symbols produced by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library; as well as the following print resource:  UN Document Series Symbols, 1946-1977:  Cumulative List with Indexes, Call No. KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.B/5/Rev. 3.

Tools for Locating UN Documents

All born-digital UN documents -- created from 1993 onward -- that have been released to the public are accessible online in PDF format.  Many older UN documents, originally produced in print, are in the process of being digitized.  The availability of older documents in an electronic format varies, depending on the identify of the UN organ or entity that created it, the type of document, and its historical significance.

Online Tools

Use the electronic resources described below to help you locate a known UN document or to search for UN documents that may be relevant to your topic.  Note that documents types and dates of coverage vary by resource, as does full-text availability. 

Name of Resource Description Dates of
How to Search Full Texts Available?
UN Digital Library This free online catalog includes records containing bibliographic information (title, author, document number, etc.) for most UN documents released to the public from 1979-present, plus selected speeches made by UN officials and selected UN publications in the public domain.
1979-present Search by keyword across the full bibliographic records or restrict searches to a particular document field (title, author, document number, etc.).  Limit by date before searching, if desired. Links to full texts are provided for most, but not all, documents.
UN Official Documents
System (ODS)
This free database includes the full texts of most UN documents released to the pubic from 1993-present.  It also includes the full texts of resolutions considered or adopted by the General Assembly and by the Security Council from 1946-present. 1993-present (documents other than resolutions).

1946-present (General Assembly resolutions and Security Council resolutions).
Search by keyword across the titles or the full texts of documents.  Limit by date, by language, and by document number segment.  Full text searches may include Boolean operators.

Best option for retrieving a known document by its document number (symbol).
Links to full texts are provided for almost all documents.

If you are able to retrieve a citation to a document using one of the electronic resources listed above, but not the full text of the document, scroll down for advice on locating Older UN Documents on Microfiche and Older UN Documents Only Available in Print.

Print Indexes

If you can't find the UN document you are seeking using one of the online tools described above, try using one or more of the print indexes described below, which can be particularly useful for finding citations to older UN documents.  If you aren't sure which index to consult, ask a librarian for guidance.  Once you have a citation, you can use it to try and locate the document in the UN Microfiche Collection.  If the document is not available on microfiche, scroll down for advice on locating Older UN Documents Only Available in Print.

  • UNDI:  United Nations Document Index, Vols. 1-13 (1950-1962)
    In Print:  Call No. KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.E/CUMDigitized Version:  HeinOnline.
    Coverage: documents issued by the UN's principal organs and bodies, plus documents issued by the UN's specialized agencies.  Use the Subject Index to find the entry number.  Then use entry number within the list of documents find the relevant document symbol and other bibliographic information.
  • UNDI:  United Nations Document Index, Vols. 14-24 (1963-1973)
    In Print:  Call No. KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.E/CUMDigitized Version:  HeinOnline.
    Coverage:  only documents issued by the UN's principal organs and bodies.  Use the Subject index to locate the document symbol.  Then use the document symbol within the list of documents to find the rest of the bibliographic information.
  • UNDEX:  United Nations Document Index, Series A (1970-1978)
    In Print:  Call No. KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.I/ADigitized Version:   HeinOnline.
    Series A is a subject index, with documents grouped by subject matter.  For each document, the document number (symbol) and other bibliographic information is provided.
  • UNDEX:  United Nations Document Index, Series B (1970-1978)
    In Print:  Call No. KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.I/BDigitized Version:  HeinOnline.
    Series B is a country index.  It enables you browse by UN member state to identify significant documents pertaining to the member state's participation in the UN system.
  • UMDEX:  United Nations Document Index, Series C (1974-1979)
    In Print:  Call No. KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.I/CDigitized Version:  HeinOnline.
    Series C provides a complete list of all publicly released UN documents, along with bibliographic information for each document.  Ten issues of Series C were released each year from 1974 to 1979.  Issues 1 & 6 list General Assembly documents (A/-).  Issues 2 & 7 list Economic & Social Council documents (E/-).  Issues 3 & 8 list Security Council documents (S/-).  Issues 4 & 9 list Secretariat documents (ST/-).  Issues 5 & 10 list documents from all other UN bodies.
  • UNDOC Current Index:  United Nations Document Index, (1979-1996)
    Microfiche Set:  Call No.  KZ5010 .A2 ST/LIB/SER.M
    Published bi-monthly from 1979-1986 and quarterly from 1987-1996, this comprehensive index can be browsed by title, by author, and by subject.  Full bibliographic information is provided for each document.  Each edition also includes a list of documents that were re-published as official records in the Official Record of each of the UN's principal organs, as well as a list of new document series symbols.


Older UN Documents on Microfiche

Many older UN documents that are not accessible online are included in the microfiche collection described below.  If you have a citation to one of these older documents, you can use the citation to try to locate the document on microfiche.

  • United Nations Documents & Publications  (1946-1998)
    (Readex UN Microfiche Collection), Call No. KZ4935 .U6
    The microfiche collection is located in the Media Services on the lower level (1st floor) of the Williams Library.  If you have not used microfiche before, or if you need help in locating the collection, ask a librarian for assistance. 


Older UN Documents Only Available In Print

Before the advent of born-digital documents in the mid 1990s, many academic and research libraries collected UN documents and publications in print.  Today, libraries designated as UN depository libraries continue to collect UN documents and publications in print and make them accessible to the public.  Bear in mind that most UN depository libraries are selective in what UN documents and publications they collect, focusing only on those types of materials that are of particular interest to their users.

For older documents that have not been digitized and are not available in microfhice, a depository library is usually the best option for accessing the documents.  The UN's Dag Hammarskjöld Library maintains a current Directory of UN Depository Libraries.  The directory may be search by geographic region, by country, and by city.  Or scroll down to browse alphabetically.

Use the resources described below to determine if a known UN document is available in print (or on microfilm or microfiche) at the Georgetown Law Library, at other academic libraries in the Washington, D.C., area, and at libraries worldwide.

  • Georgetown University Law Library - Advanced Search Interface
    To limit your search to UN publications held by the Law Library, select Law Library Catalog from the options at the top of the page.  To search across the holdings of all Georgetown University libraries and other nearby academic libraries, select Georgetown Univ. + Local Academic Libraries.  Then use the menu on the left to select title as the search field and enter the words in the title in the search box.  Members of the Georgetown Law community may request UN publications held by local academic libraries for pick up at the Georgetown Law Library.
  • WorldCat
    If the UN publication you are seeking is not available from any academic library in the D.C. area, use WorldCat to search more broadly across the holdings of leading libraries through the world.  To search by title, select title or title phrase from the menu to the right of the search box.  Alternatively, if you know the ISBN number, search for that instead of the title.  Members of the Georgetown Law community may request UN publications held by libraries outside the Washington, D.C., area by using the inter-library loan service.