A-Z for Researchers

1. What are Archives?


The United Nations Archives and Record Management Section acquires, preserves, and makes available material created or received during UN business.
Archives serve as institutional memory. They provide evidence of the past and promote accountability and transparency of past actions. Archival record can be in any format including paper documents, photographs, maps, films, sound recordings, electronic records, documentary art, or an architectural drawings.

ARMS ensure that historically significant records are made available for a variety of research uses, including teaching purposes, legal proceedings, building plans, publications, television and radio programs. Knowledge of the past creates a better future.


2. United Nations Archives and Dag Hammarskjöld Library (DHL):
      A Fundamental Difference


Collecting records makes an archives different from a library, which collects published items, like books. The many differences between archives and libraries can be traced to one central and all-encompassing fact: the nature of the material collected by archives is fundamentally different from that found in libraries. In the UN system the DHL collects published material, and among their most valuable collections are the United Nations Official Documents.

ARMS collects original unpublished material. The records held by the Archives are unique and irreplaceable. By their very nature archival materials are fragile and vulnerable to damage. If an archival document is lost, stolen, or irreparably damaged, the information it contains is lost forever. For this reason, the archives have developed stringent security procedures. Archival material can only be consulted in supervised reading rooms. The rules that govern how documents must be handled are explained as part of the admission process.


3. How United Nations Archives Organizes its Holdings


ARMS organizes and describes records according to their own policies and procedures but generally they share a common method, terminology and approach when performing this work.

Records are transferred to archives from a variety of departments, offices and missions. All records from a particular Department or Office may not enter an archives at the same time, but instead, transfers can occur over a period of time, even years.

After transfer, the records are processed for use by the public. This processing involves an appraisal of the records to determine those that have enduring value, a physical arrangement and an account of what is contained in the records (these accounts are commonly called descriptions).
Archives describe their holdings based on the fonds principle – the fonds is the entire body of records created by the transferring entity (e.g. a department, an office, a mission). The records related to that fonds are usually further broken down into series, which are based on a common function.


4. The Language and Customs of Archives: the Finding Aids


Practices related to the arrangement and description of archival material can be perplexing, particularly since the archival profession, like every other, has developed its own jargon.

Finding aids are the tools which provide access to archival material. These take many different forms and serve a variety of purposes. The UN Archives has developed finding aids to detail the particular records in a fonds. One finding aid may exist for an entire fonds or for one series. It often depends on how the records were transferred and the nature of the records.

Archival records are usually maintained in files and it is at this level that finding aid descriptions usually begin. Researchers can begin by looking at fonds and series level descriptions to find materials related to their topic. Once the series of interest has been located, the finding aid for those records can be consulted. The finding aids are available on our website and staff at the archives will be able to explain the way our holdings are organized and help to identify records.


5. Planning the Research Strategy and
       Finding the Archives you Need


Whether you are a writer or graduate student, genealogist or an historian, successful use of archives depends on a carefully planned research strategy. The strategy should allow adequate time for background research, establishing which archives hold relevant collections, and include a work schedule which takes into account the extent of the material to be consulted.

The UN library should always be the first stop on the way to the UN archives. The success in using archival material will depend on the secondary material available for the research subject. Secondary sources provide a context for assessing the primary sources and acquire a general knowledge of the research topic. The names, places, events and dates provide the access points to the primary material to consult.

The UN Archives performs a collecting function, gathering records from a number of sources relating to a specific function, activity of the Organization. The Archives collects material from Departments, Offices and Political and Peace-keeping Missions. Identifying which of these archives will be useful is one of the most important steps in the research strategy.


6. Gaining Access

More information can be found here

When making the first contact with ARMS, preferably by e-mail, state the research topic succinctly. The archivist will assist you in locating possible records of interest, and in reserving a desk for you in our reference room. As we are often booked weeks in advance, it is advisable to plan your visit with as much advance notice as possible. You will only be able to access the archives on the days for which you have pre-registered. Registration is required in our Archives. Patrons have to complete a form giving such details as name, address, telephone number, and area of research interest. Identification, such as a driver's license or student card, is also required. During registration, the archivist will explain various regulations including patrons’ responsibilities when handling archival material and security procedures in place at the Archives. Patrons are asked to sign a statement indicating that they have been informed of these regulations and agree to comply with them.

The UN Archives has policies governing access to their records. Archives are closed for a period of twenty years after their creation. The archives are closed also when they are classified “strictly confidential” and contain highly sensitive information. Procedures for requesting access and declassification are in place. Records in poor physical condition, records that have been damaged or unprocessed material (records which have not been arranged and described) are not made available for public consultation. 


7. Tools