User’s Guide to United Nations Information



As the world’s chief international governmental organization (IGO), the United Nations provides a vast amount of information on international peace and security, economic and social development, human rights, humanitarian affairs, the environment, and international law. Thousands of UN publications address current issues, and hundreds of thousands of UN documents published in the last half century constitute important primary source material for historians of the modern era.

Because the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a full depository for the UN, this wealth of information–and the staff to help users access it–are readily available to UIUC Library patrons.


Structure of the Organization

Users can more readily access and understand UN information if they understand the UN’s structure.

General Assembly

The General Assembly is the main UN governing body and is composed of representatives from all member nations. It establishes policies for the Secretariat, receives reports from the organization’s subordinate units, approves the organization’s budget, and appoints the Security Council’s candidate for Secretary-General. It delegates most matters to its six Main Committees.

Security Council

The Security Council attempts to maintain international peace and security. Any one of its five permanent members–France, Great Britain, China, the Russian Federation, or the United States–can veto a resolution or decision. Ten other members serve two-year terms.  The Council sends peacekeeping missions to conflict zones with the consent of the governments involved. It may enforce its decisions through the use of economic sanctions or even military action.


As the largest UN body, the Secretariat supports other UN entities and administers their programs. Its activities range from conducting studies to administering peacekeeping operations.

Economic and Social Council

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is composed of fifty-four member nations. It coordinates the UN’s economic and social programs and works with the Specialized Agencies (see below) and thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)–known also as the World Court–is the judicial arm of the UN. Its fifteen judges are selected by the General Assembly and the Security Council. The parties in cases brought before the ICJ are states. The World Court can enforce its rulings only against governments that willingly participate in its proceedings.

Trusteeship Council

The Trusteeship Council was created to hasten the end of colonialism. By 1994, it had fulfilled its mandate by helping to bring the last of eleven Non-Self Governing Territories to self-government, and it is no longer obligated to meet regularly.

The Specialized Agencies

Twenty-two organizations (see Table 1) that are often thought to be part of the UN are actually autonomous intergovernmental organizations. Like other IGOs, each of these Specialized Agencies has a governing body composed of representatives of its member states, as well as an executive body that carries out the organization’s policies and programs. Their primary sources of funds are dues paid by member states. However, these organizations have entered into formal agreements with the United Nations. Typically, this type of agreement obligates an organization to issue periodic reports to the ECOSOC, to exchange information with the ECOSOC, and to attend ECOSOC meetings and allow ECOSOC representatives to attend its own meetings. Otherwise, the agency is in no way subject to the UN’s control. UN bodies may offer to pay Specialized Agencies to execute certain programs, but the agencies are free to refuse such offers.  A list of the specialized agencies follows:

FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

ICAO International Civil Aviation Organization

IFAD International Fund for Agricultural Development

ILO International Labour Organization

IMO International Maritime Organization

IMF International Monetary Fund

ITU International Telecommunication Union

UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

UNIDO United Nations Industrial Development Organization

UPU Universal Postal Union

World Bank Group*

WHO World Health Organization

WIPO World Intellectual Property Organization

WMO World Meteorological Organization

WTO World Tourism Organization

*The World Bank Group is composed of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), the International Development Association (IDA), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA).

Related Organizations:

IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency

CTBTO Preparatory Commission for the Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization

OPCW Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

WTO World Trade Organization

Locations of Specialized Agency Information Resources at the UIUC Library

Specialized Agency publications cannot be acquired through the United Nations’ depository library program. However, some of these organizations have their own depository programs or similar arrangements that enable libraries to acquire these materials. The following list identifies IGOs and the corresponding UIUC departmental libraries that have blanket orders or depository status with these organizations:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ACES Library

International Atomic Energy Agency Grainger Engineering Library

International Labour Organization Business and Economics Library

International Monetary Fund Business and Economics Library

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Various libraries

World Bank Business and Economics Library

World Health Organization Health Sciences Library

World Trade Organization Business and Economics Library


Document Types

Official Records

The Official Records are not a single entity but rather a group of serial titles sharing certain characteristics. All include the proceedings of a major UN body in either verbatim or summary form. Although Official Records are often thought of as only meeting records, their supplements and annexes are equally useful. The Official Records of each body include its resolutions and decisions as either its first or last annual supplement. The General Assembly and Economic and Social Council’s Official Record supplements also include the annual reports of most of the organization’s subsidiary bodies. The Official Record supplements of the Security Council include every document issued by that body. Finally, Official Record annexes typically include lists of documents–arranged by agenda item–that can be used as subject bibliographies.

Official Records are available in four formats at the UIUC Library. Those issued from 1993 onward are available as PDF files through the Official Document System of the United Nations (ODS). For more information on ODS, see its entry on the United Nations web page on the UIUC Library site.

The call numbers of Official Records published till about 1996 are as follows. All are located in the Main Stacks.

General Assembly Q.341.2322Un3o

Security Council Q.341.2323Un3o, Q.341.2323Un3osup

Economic and Social Council Q.341.23Un3o

Trade and Development Board Q.341.23Un23o

Trusteeship Council Q.341.23Un34o

Official Records are also available on microfiche for 1982 onward (consult staff at the Information Desk) and on microcard for the years 1945-1981.


Masthead Documents

This category includes documents written primarily for UN bodies and governments of member states. Common types of masthead documents (which I refer to as MDOCs) include the following:

  • Human rights reports
  • Resolutions
  • NGO reports
  • Meeting records of subordinate bodies
  • Statistics (usually budgetary)
  • Correspondence

The length of masthead documents varies widely: while resolutions typically consist of a single page, human rights reports are often more than one hundred pages in length. Their quality is also very uneven: many reports in this category are regarded as the definitive documents on their subjects, while others, such as those prepared by member governments, are loaded with bias.

Masthead documents are available in multiple formats at the UIUC Library. Those issued from 1993 onward may be accessed–usually in three to six languages–through ODS. Digital masthead documents can also be accessed through links to ODS on UN web pages.

Selected masthead documents issued since the early 1990s are available in print in the Main Stacks on Deck 5 West. Many of these items have been cataloged. MDOCs issued by the Security Council through about 1989 are reprinted in the Council’s Official Record supplements (Q.341.2323Un3osup.).

Masthead documents are available on microfiche for the period 1982 to 2009 and on microcard for the years 1945 to 1981.

Sales Publications

While Official Records and masthead documents are as plain as a tin can, most sales publications have attractive covers and illustrations, and most have been carefully edited. The Library acquires most UN sales publications. These items can be accessed through catalog records that frequently include URLs for full-text versions.


Many UN serial titles are issued as masthead documents, and the Official Records consist mainly of serial pieces. However, the most heavily used UN serials are sales publications represented in the online catalog.


Locations and Formats of UN Materials

United Nations titles classified in Dewey are scattered throughout the UIUC Library. But large numbers of physical UN documents can be found in four places.

Government Documents Reference

The Government Documents Reference Collection, located at the North end of room 200 in the Main Library, houses the United Nations reference collection, UN CD-ROMs, and all UN microfiche.

Main Stacks, Level 5 West

Titles arranged by UN document number can be found on Level 5 West. Upon entering 5 West, walk straight ahead and look to your right. When you see call numbers beginning with ‘UN’, you’ve arrived. Cataloged and uncatalogued documents are interfiled.

Main Stacks, Level 10 East

Official Records in print format are shelved together on this floor. For their call numbers, see ‘Official Records’ above.

Main Stacks, Deck 8 East

The United Nations microcard collection is housed in a climate-controlled room located in the northeast quarter of this floor. The cards are stored in small red boxes to the right as you enter. Microcards are produced on opaque material in print too small to be read with the naked eye. Unfortunately, the UIUC does not own a machine that can copy them. The machine needed to view them–the Readex Microprint OPAQUE VIEWER model 7–is against the north wall of this room. If a document you seek was issued before 1982, you can find no record for it in the online catalog, and it is not a Security Council document, it is probably available on microcard only. Consult the Government Documents Library staff for assistance in finding and utilizing UN documents in this format.


The UN Classification System

United Nations classification numbers–known widely as “document symbols”–are composed of letters and numerals separated by slashes. A symbol is made up of three to five segments:

The first segment—and sometimes the second as well—identifies the document’s source. For example, A/ in the symbol A/50/PV.45 indicates that the document was issued by the General Assembly. And in the symbol A/C.5/49/25, the first two segments—A/C.5/–indicate that the document was produced by the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee. The first segments of documents issued by the UN’s main bodies (with some exceptions) are as follows:

A/ General Assembly

E/ Economic and Social Council

S/ Security Council

ST/ Secretariat

T/ Trusteeship Council


Abbreviations representing particular types of entities (e.g., committees) appear in vast numbers of document symbols:

AC. Ad hoc committee

CN. Commission

CONF. Conference

SC. Subcommittee

Sub. Subcommission

WG. Working group

WP. Working party

The second segment often represents not a document’s source but rather a type of document, as in the case of resolutions. Documents that follow the format S/RES/[number] are Security Council resolutions, and those that follow the format A/RES/[session]/[number] are General Assembly resolutions.

The segment following the issuing body usually indicates the session or year in which the document was published. For example, the symbol A/C.5/49/25 was assigned to a document produced during the General Assembly’s 49th session. And E/1996/28 was assigned to an ECOSOC document issued in 1996.

The number following the session or year is the individual document number. Thus, A/C.5/49/25 is the classification number for the 25th document produced by its issuing body in the 49th session.

Some symbols also include an acronym or abbreviation—placed in the middle or near the end– denoting a document type or distribution classification, or indicating that the original text has been modified. In E/CN.4/1996/NGO/75, for example, “NGO/” indicates that the document was produced by a nongovernmental organization. Other acronyms and abbreviations of this sort include the following:

Add. Addendum

Amend. Amendment

Corr. Corrigendum (a correction)

CRP. Conference room paper

Excerpt Excerpt

INF. Information series

L. Limited distribution (assigned primarily to draft documents)

MIN. Minutes

NGO/ Non-governmental organization

PET/ Petition

PV. Verbatim record of a meeting

R. Restricted distribution (confidential)

RES/ Resolution

Rev. Revision

RT/ Record of testimony

SR. Summary record

WP Working paper

Some symbols begin with the acronym for a subsidiary body, omitting the letter that identifies the parent body. For example, symbols for documents of the Economic Commission for Europe, an entity that is subordinate to the ECOSOC, usually omit the E/ representing the latter.


The Shelving Sequence of UN Documents

The United Nations Collection on Deck 5 West of the Main Stacks includes both cataloged and uncatalogued materials in print format.

All UN documents on Deck 5 West and in the UN reference collection (located in room 200 of the Main Library) are arranged by symbol. The initial letter(s) in upper case followed immediately by a slash (e.g., A/ or TD/) distinguishes a document’s symbol from other numbers that may appear on the piece.

The following rules determine the proper shelving sequence of items in this collection:

  • Segments beginning with letters should be compared letter by letter and arranged alphabetically. A document bearing the symbol A/CN.1/1 would be shelved before a document having the symbol A/CONF.1/1, since “CN” precedes “CONF” when both abbreviations are placed in alphabetic order.
  • All numbers (including years) are treated as whole numbers and never as decimals. The symbol A/50/PV.10 would be shelved immediately after A/50/PV.9 because 10 is greater than 9.
  • Segments beginning with numbers come before segments beginning with letters. A/50/2 is shelved before A/50/PV.1 since 2 is a numeral and the corresponding segment of A/50/PV.1 begins with the letter “P.”
  • The call number for a cataloged UN document consists of the prefix ‘UN.’ followed by the document’s symbol. The call number for a piece bearing the symbol A/50/238 would appear as follows:


  • Cataloged documents in the UN Collection are interfiled with uncatalogued documents. Therefore, a cataloged document with the call number UN.A/50/238 would be shelved between the uncatalogued documents bearing the symbols A/50/237 and A/50/239.