Library History

100 years of the ILO library: How the “best library on labour issues” was set up

As the ILO library celebrates 100 years, librarian Edit Horváth writes about her first predecessor, Helen Lake, who faced considerable challenges to build a comprehensive collection after the Great War.

News | 29 May 2020
The ILO Constitution set out in 1919 states that the “The functions of the International Labour Office shall include the collection and distribution of information on all subjects relating to the international adjustment of conditions of industrial life and labour…"

With such a clear mandate, Helen A. Lake, a university graduate and former librarian from the Ministry of Labour of the United Kingdom, was appointed on 12 April 1920 as the first ILO librarian, just one year after the foundation of the ILO when the Office was still split between Paris and London. Her responsibilities included collecting and cataloguing reports and periodicals, as well as replying to information requests “on any particular subject".

The original intention, as Helen's supervisor Royal Meeker wrote, was very ambitious: “I want to make the library of the International Labour Office the best library of labour and industrial literature in the world", as documented in the article by Marine Dhermy-Mairal, “L'orgie documentaire ou les débuts chaotiques de la bibliothèque du Bureau international du Travail (1920-1937)".

Nevertheless, the beginning was quite difficult. When she started to work in London, “The library was a bare room containing a table, a chair, a cupboard (empty), two trays and nothing else whatever."

Helen and her colleagues faced huge difficulties to organize a library from nothing, to select and purchase publications or entire collections, integrate incoming documents, find an appropriate classification system and to respond to urgent questions from ILO officials all at the same time.

As Helen wrote: “the library must […] prepare for what will probably be the fastest rate of growth of any library in the world". By February 1921, its catalogue already included 107,650 documents, out of which 106,000 were classified and accessible.

According to a correspondence between the ILO's first Director Albert Thomas and Eric Drummond, Secretary General of the League of Nations, Helen worked closely with Florence Wilson, League of Nations Librarian, after the Office moved to Geneva in July 1920. They chose the Dewey classification system for both libraries, which at that time was the preferred tool of European libraries to classify and find publications by subject.

Portrayed among all male ILO managers in the photo below, according to the list of ILO staff from 1921, Helen Lake did not hold the status of manager, despite being in charge of the library and managing a team of 14. Exchanges kept in the ILO Archives reveal staff insubordination towards her and the bad relations she had with her chief, Royal Meeker, Director of the Research Division. “She considered herself underpaid, not supported by her hierarchy, ignored, and sometimes circumvented in decisions that affected her". Helen Lake left the ILO in mid-1921.

The ILO library in the 1920s

As the Report of the Director described in 1921, “The library of the International Labour Office was constituted in the first place by the purchase of the library of the International Association for Labour Legislation, and has received constant additions.”

The mission of the library was to provide ILO officials and “accredited workers" with all the necessary bibliographic materials (books and periodicals) required for their work. The Library had to support in-depth research and everyday functioning of the Office simultaneously: the preparation of conventions and conferences as well as to give practical information or up-to-date data to both internal and external users at the same time.

As the Report of the Director stated: “It is the duty of the Library to circulate periodicals, to lend books, to conduct researches and to compile bibliographies. " The first bibliographies were compiled in 1920-21 on subjects like “female labour, workers' welfare, international labour legislation, minimum wages, accidents.“

According to the ILO Constitution, the Office aimed to collect all the necessary information on different subjects of industrial relations and labour.

With his great ambition to collect everything relevant on all labour issues, the first ILO Director, Albert Thomas proposed in 1928 that “governments, organisations or institutions, authors or publishers" should send their publications to the Library “treating the International Labour Office Library as a sort of international "legal deposit" library for all publications concerning labour, its history and legislation. “

In 1927, the Library received 24,174 publications mainly from governments, workers' and employers' organizations, or through purchase. The selection of documents was very strict. They focused on the acquisition of national labour legislation, decisions of arbitration courts, history of workers' movements and cooperatives. Some special collections are still important parts of the Library's heritage, such as Russian newspapers from the Soviet Union, or 700 films about labour problems from different nations in 1927.

A central international information exchange

Furthermore, as the first Report of ILO Director Albert Thomas emphasized in 1921, the Office's aspiration was, in line with the Article 396 of the Treaty of Versailles, to be “a central international information exchange, and not merely an information depot." The Office wanted not only to collect information, but also become a vehicle of knowledge transfer on subjects related to its mandate. Consequently, the organization of the information service was crucial. The library played an important role in replying to information enquiries.

In 1926, the library moved to the first ILO-built headquarters, on the shores of Lake Geneva, the building now occupied by the World Trade Organization. The collection of 150,000 items was transferred to its new location took eight days, during which the services were interrupted. The library occupied five floors in the new building, one nicely decorated reading room with gallery, three floors for the stacks while the personnel used three floors.

That same year, the library published its first bibliography of publications dealing with the International Labour Organization.

The knowledge of the current situation of labour legislation or industrial relations was essential to the work of the organization. To facilitate the circulation of information across the Office, additional documentation centres were established, such as the Library of the International Management Institute in 1927.

By 1937, the library contained 400,000 documents in 50 languages with a strong focus on national legislation and statistics.

Thanks to the efforts of early ILO librarians, the Library still holds important collections on social and economic subjects, national labour legislation and labour statistics from the 19th and 20th centuries, including the former library of ILO Director Albert Thomas.

During 2020 , as we commemorate the history of the ILO Library, staff will be able to know more about our valuable collections and services.

For more information about library services, please visit us at the Library's web site, or write to (


International Labour Conference, “Rapport du Directeur Présenté à La Conférence Volume II," Report of the Director-General. (International Labour Conference (11th : 1928 : Geneva, Switzerland), Geneva: ILO, 1928) , (p. 42)
André de Maday, Bibliothèque du Bureau International du Travail. (Genève, 1937).
Kargul Maccabez, Joelle, Histoire de la Bibliothèque du Bureau International du Travail.
Dhermy-Mairal, “L'« orgie » documentaire ou les débuts chaotiques de la bibliothèque du Bureau international du travail (1920-1937)."