BERLIN — Since 1946, the United Nations Depository Library Program — consisting now of more than 360 depository libraries in more than 130 countries — has provided scholars, journalists, politicians, diplomats and the broader public with access to what is called the “UN deposit.”
That is, print copies of UN documents (official texts of the principal organs and specialized agencies) and UN sales publications (information in the form of booklets, brochures, journals and scholarly monographs). The UN Secretariat supplies the documents regularly to the libraries.
For one depository library per each UN member state, the deposit is free, while other such libraries must pay a subscription fee; in 2013, it was $1,750 for developed countries and $500 for developing countries. The policies on the production, distribution and sale of UN documents and other publications as well as related details of the Depository Library system are decided by an interdepartmental body in the UN Secretariat, the UN Publications Board.
For decades, the system worked well: the libraries were reliable information sources for journalistic articles and scientific studies. Their librarians introduced many students to the world of the UN with the help of the depository publications.
Yet for some years now, the system has come into troubled waters: in a letter dated July 10, 2013, the Publications Board informed the depository libraries that the delivery of printed documents and sales publications, which had been interrupted in November 2012 because of flood damage in the printing facilities, caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York, would not be renewed. Instead, the service would be cut because of budget restraints.
So, no more printed depository material from New York.
What did the libraries get instead? Purely and simply, they had to be satisfied with relying on the promises of the Publications Board’s July 2013 letter, announcing as a substitute an “online access to their standard range of publications . . . at the earliest possible opportunity” and “on the same fee basis . . . as applied in 2012.”
In a world where only 40 percent of the population has an Internet connection and most Internet users are located in the globe’s more-developed countries, this move could considerably limit the number of libraries able to access the UN texts.
Moreover, the board has not kept its promises:
• First, it took the board until early 2016 to get the online access going, leaving the libraries three years without access to current UN documents and other UN publications.
• Second, the production, management and marketing of the new online platform, called UNiLibrary, was given by the board to the OECD, or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, and considered a body of industrialized countries. In this way, the online platform is placed outside the immediate political and legal control of UN bodies, an undemocratic UN publication policy indeed.
• Third, the board reneged on the license fee: the OECD website indicates a fee of $12,500 for full access to the UNiLibrary (comprising read, copy and print functions), even if the board has not made clear yet whether the depository libraries must pay the full amount to the OECD or get a discount. In light of the high fees likely to be paid by the depository libraries, it must be small comfort that the individual Internet user can access UN iLibrary free on a read-only basis. (The iLibrary, in an unsual move, recently “sponsored” the Nov. 10 issue of Foreign Affairs Today.)
• Fourth, as a kind of compensation, the board said in a March 2016 letter that the gratis Internet access to UN documents through the Official Documents System (ODS), which has so far been used only by experts because of its reliance on the complex UN document numbers, will be revised and expanded “in the coming months” to a new “digital repository platform” with improved searching abilities. It remains to be seen when and how this service will be put into practice.
• Fifth, the board communication policy concerning the Depository Library system has been fragmentary and vague: an initial “consultation paper” was sent to the libraries on June 30, 2014, arguing for replacing the print deposit by an online platform. Three board letters justifying the plan were additionally sent in the first half of 2016. But they left out precise information on the subscription fees to be paid by the libraries and when the decisions will be taken.
If the board plans are carried out without significant changes, severe consequences could be encountered for the depository library system. This could mean that a large number of the libraries — especially in economically weak countries, where Internet access is not pervasive or reliable — will react to the steep cost increase either by canceling the subscription or reducing its purchase of UN secondary literature. Both are problematic for a world organization of the UN’s size and stature, which relies on global support through affordable channels of information as well as scholarly evaluation.
The American Library Association has realized the importance of the recent developments in the Depository Library system by calling for, in a June 2016 resolution “free access to the iLibrary” for the libraries “to assure equitable access to all member countries of the United Nations.”
Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).