BLOG: The UNESCO Archive: A Brief Introduction to the Physical and Digital Repositories by Lisa Pinley Covert

Gretchen Pierce's picture

Today we continue Lisa Pinley Covert’s two-part series on transnational research. If you missed the first post on transnational research tips, please click here. If you are interested in contributing to this blog for the good of the community, click here. Covert is Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the history department at the College of Charleston. Her first book project, San Miguel de Allende: Mexicans, Foreigners, and the Making of a World Heritage Site (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) examines economic development, tourism, and expatriation in a provincial Mexican city. She received a Fulbright Global Scholar award in 2019 to pursue research in Peru and France for her second book project about conflicting visions for reconstructing Cusco, Peru in the aftermath of a 1950 earthquake. This post is based on her experience doing this research.

The UNESCO Archive: A Brief Introduction to the Physical and Digital Repositories

The institution known as UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has a rather lofty goal: it “seeks to build peace and to promote the general welfare of humanity.” UNESCO’s activities, as its name suggests, encompass education, sciences, culture, and communications. UNESCO was created by a United Nations conference in 1945 and the first session was convened in 1946. The archives were established in 1947 and include the records of the organization as well as its predecessor organizations.1 The holdings are truly extensive and include paper documents, photographs, sound and film archives, and a web archive. Before my current project, I had not given much thought to looking to UNESCO for my research. But UNESCO has shaped global development priorities since the 1940s and has played an instrumental role in determining what constitutes “world heritage,” “poverty,” “public health,” and other key concepts. The materials in these archives can thus provide valuable insights into a wide variety of topics from the mid-twentieth century to the present.

I will begin with a brief description of my experiences doing research in person during the summer of 2019, followed by an introduction to UNESCO’s extensive online holdings. The physical archive is located in the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. The UNESCO headquarters occupy a full city block, but the archive reading room is a small space in the basement of the library (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The UNESCO archive reading room,

You have to pass through a metal detector and deposit a form of identification at a front desk before proceeding to the library. I contacted the archive staff via email a couple of weeks before my visit and they asked me to complete a form with questions about my research project. Upon my arrival I was pleasantly surprised to find that the archivists pulled boxes of materials for me based on my responses to the questionnaire. This was the first time I experienced this in an archive, and I was skeptical, so I kept insisting on consulting the catalog to look for more materials, but the original boxes they pulled were very comprehensive. The archivists were all quite knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful, and the ones I interacted with were all at least trilingual, with French, English, and one other language. The archive encourages the use of digital photographs to capture documents for private research use. One limitation I encountered is that there seems to be a gap between the web archiving efforts and pre-internet files saved on floppy disks. The archive did not have the equipment available to view a box of floppy disks from the early 1990s. These materials were held offsite in the Annex Archives a few blocks away. Aside from that setback, it was a pleasant research experience. The library also has a rich collection of titles related to UNESCO and development.

Because of COVID-19, the regulations for using the archive have become a bit stricter. Users must make an appointment in advance at and specify the number of days they will be working. Gloves, masks, and social distancing protocol must be observed at all times, not only when one is using the materials.

While I was working in the reading room, I noticed that the archivists were busy moving carts full of documents in and out of the archive. This is part of an ongoing digitization effort to make archival materials available online through the UNESCO Digital Library. The website for the archives includes detailed instructions for searching and accessing the digitized holdings, which include a wide range of documents, reports, and periodicals (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: A screen shot of the collections in the UNESCO Digital Library,

Most of UNESCO’s published reports and periodicals are available in French, English, and Spanish, or whichever language is most relevant if it is a regional topic. You can limit your search to items available online and there are effective filters to sort results by language, date, country, type of source, topic keywords, and other metrics. To give a sense of the types of sources available online, you might find the text of speech given by UNESCO’s Director-General, a report on tourism management at World Heritage sites, or a 1959 video on development programs in Pátzcuaro, Mexico. This digital repository will be a valuable resource during times when we cannot travel for research but will also help limit the time needed in the physical archive, a critical consideration for those of us with time and financial constraints. Moreover, these materials can be quite useful for teaching. Because of the volume of materials available online, the wide range of topics UNESCO works on, and the accessibility in terms of language, these materials are a great resource for student research. I can envision using the newsletters as an accessible foreign-language resource for students. The archive also includes multimedia materials that could be incorporated into teaching online or in the classroom.

I hope this brief introduction will inspire you to take a look at what the UNESCO archive has to offer, and that you find the resources as valuable as I have.


1The predecessor organizations’ archives included in the UNESCO archive are: the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (IICI), 1925-1946; Conferences of the Allied Ministers of Education (CAME), 1942-1945; Conference for the Establishment of UNESCO, London, 1945; and the Preparatory Commission for UNESCO (Prep.Com), 1945-1946.






Posted in: