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Finding United Nations Documents

March 27, 2013

Written by Gabriela Femenia, Foreign and International Law Librarian

UN emblem.gifThe many bodies of the United Nations produce voluminous records, making research into U.N. documents a sometimes challenging task. Having some basic knowledge of the U.N.’s recordkeeping practices and where to find its documents can make the process a lot easier.
First, it is important to know that each U.N. document can be identified by its unique document symbol, created according to the UN document numbering system. Although the numbering system has undergone some changes since the U.N.’s founding in 1945, the symbols generally incorporate indicators of which U.N. body has issued or received the document, which U.N. session or year the document was published in, the nature of the document, and the order in which the documents were issued. For example, the document labeled with the symbol A/RES/49/10 can be decoded as follows: 
UN Document Symbols.jpg
It is not necessary to be able to decode a document’s symbol to conduct U.N. research, but understanding the numbering system can help you identify where to look for a document. For a very thorough explanation of the U.N. document numbering system, with many examples, see the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Library’s United Nations Documentation research guide
Thumbnail image for Search by Symbol.JPGIf you do have the document’s symbol in hand, begin by entering it into the “Search by Symbol” box at the UN Documents portal. Because U.N. documents are often issued in multiple languages, you will then be asked to choose a language, at which point a PDF will immediately begin to download if that document is available in the U.N.’s Official Document System (ODS). While not every U.N. document has been entered into the ODS, most recent documents are available in the system, and the U.N. is constantly digitizing and entering older documents into the ODS.   
If the document is not available through the ODS, it is a good idea to next check the website of the body that issued the document, which you can find through the U.N.’s official website locator. If the agency’s site doesn’t provide a digital copy of the document, many U.N. documents can still be found in print or in microform at libraries that collect U.N. material in those formats, including Biddle and Van Pelt, using the document symbol. 
If you do not have the document symbol for the item you seek, the Dag Hammarskjold Library offers two indexes to help you get that information. UNBISnet and UN-I-QUE are complementary. UN-I-QUE provides quick access to document symbols, while UNBISnet provides much more extensive information about a given document, including lengthier descriptions and sometimes even a direct link to the document within the ODS. Since neither index includes every document the U.N. has produced, it is also a good idea to check the commercial database AccessUN, available to PennLaw members through Biddle’s e-resources list, and to Penn affiliates through Van Pelt’s e-resources list. AccessUN similarly provides document symbols and short descriptions, and occasionally also provides full text of a given document. All of these indexes can be searched by keyword, issuing body, or any other information you may have about the document you’re looking for.
In addition to searching by document symbol, the UN Documents portal also facilitates browsing of the resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council, and other categories of key documents of the main U.N. organs, by following the quick links under the appropriate heading. For easy searching of General Assembly and Security Council voting records and speeches, see the helpful search engines on the UNBISnet main page.   
For additional pointers on conducting United Nations research or help finding a particular document, email Gabriela Femenia, Foreign and International Law Librarian, at, or stop by Tanenbaum 412.