Library History

100 years of the ILO Library: From the first database to complex digital solutions

For over a century, the ILO Library has always sought to apply best practice technical solutions to serve the information needs of ILO officials and the public, writes Edit Horváth in the second article on “100 years of the ILO Library".

News | 29 November 2020
In the years following World War II, the explosion of printed publications made it difficult for the Library to respond to all the requests of researchers. A number of documentation units were created in various departments of the ILO in order to satisfy the high demand, to facilitate the circulation of publications and to better respond to the information needs of officials.

In 1965, the ILO Library was among the first libraries around the world – and the only UN Library – to build a computerized database and to automate its workflow.

Over a ten-year period, the Library developed its automation, which saw the progressive conversion of most library operations from manual to machine-based methods. The ILO Library developed its own computerized library management and information storage and retrieval system and launched its first automated catalogue, LABORDOC. At the time this was housed on an IBM mainframe computer, located at ILO HQ in Geneva – a major innovation at that time.

By 1975, most printed catalogues had been eliminated, and librarians searched the LABORDOC database while users consulted it on microfilm. A number of abstracts and printed bulletins about new publications were also produced from LABORDOC files. The integrated library system was adopted by more than 100 national, regional and international organizations, including UNESCO and FAO, in the 1970s.

A few years later, in 1978, the ILO replaced its big mainframe computer with personal computers and a brand-new system, MINISIS, which allowed users to directly look up records of publications in the Library. Since that time, the ILO Library database LABORDOC has been available to external users for online consultation, through commercial database providers on telecommunication networks and later the internet.

In 1987, the Library introduced ILIS (International Labour Information System), which provided online access to ILO databases. This system was available online to library users at the Office of Geneva, in field offices but above all in government agencies, employers, and workers from Member states.

In the 1990s, LABORDOC and other ILO databases, including NATLEX and ILOLEX, were published and distributed on CDs and as of 2000, LABORDOC was made available online as the intranet developed.

Since 2000, the ILO Library has been digitizing ILO publications to make them accessible to readers around the world. Today, most ILO publications and documents are available online through LABORDOC, which was converted into the ILO institutional repository in 2019 in order to highlight the ILO's published knowledge and expertize.

ILO libraries around the world

Following the launch of the first technical cooperation projects in the 1950s and 1960s, a number of libraries were opened in different ILO country and regional offices to provide labour information to ILO officials and constituents, but also to workers, employers, journalists and to the general public.

In 1975, when the ILO moved to its present building, modern facilities were provided for library staff and users to access the collection of 350,000 books and 10,000 serials. The Library reading room can accommodate up to 80 visitors and the light wood furniture, a gift from the Federal Republic of Germany, was specially designed by Swedish interior designer Lennart Janson. A very large mural created by the Mexican Pedro Coronel adorns one of the walls.

Before the digital age, ILO libraries were the main access points to the ILO's knowledge and expertize, supporting the implementation of programmes and projects worldwide. By the 1980s, there were around 39 libraries in every region in addition to 25 departmental documentation centres in Geneva, providing access to labour statistics, international labour standards, national legislation as well as to training materials and other ILO publications or databases.

Field librarians actively promoted the ILO's knowledge, distributed and sold books, organized user training, participated in book fairs or conferences and worked as communication focal points. Furthermore, field librarians have been crucial for the ILO's work collecting information on national labour market or economic situation or on national labour laws.

Today, cataloguing and indexing of ILO published information has been centralized in HQ. Field librarians continue to work in public information and communications activities, reaching out to audiences in their regions.

In order to strengthen the ILO's information services and to improve the dissemination of its published knowledge in different regions, the Library created an ILO Global Information Network in the early 2000s with the participation of 40 information specialists from field offices and departments. The Library organized many training events over the years enabling every ILO librarian to provide high quality information services to their users.

The ILO Library today

While information tools and dissemination techniques have changed dramatically since1920, the Library continues to serve as an information resource for people researching labour and social issues around the world. Every year, we answer more than 5,800 questions coming from constituents, academic researchers and ILO officials.

Today, rather than attempting to collect everything published on the world of work – an impossible task in the digital age – the Library focuses on making ILO information accessible and discoverable to everybody online through its institutional repository, LABORDOC. As Albert Thomas, ILO's first Director General once sought to create a system of legal deposit, today we strive to create a deposit of all ILO publications and documents.

Knowledge services online

Following in the footsteps of the first ILO librarians, the ILO Library team continues to ensure that staff have access to the best resources necessary for their work. The Library no longer receives thousands of print periodicals weekly, instead it facilitates access to thousands of e-journals, databases and e-books and millions of articles for the benefit of ILO staff.

The Library recently implemented an outreach and liaison librarian programme with ILO departments to offer personalized research assistance in person and remotely to help our colleagues conduct in-depth research or manage bibliographic references using online collaborative tools.

To find out more about how to take advantage of research assistance or other library services, please visit us at the ILO Library Website, or write us at:


Linda S. Kropf and George K. Thompson , “The International Labour Organisation Library in Geneva”, Library History Vol.4, no.6 (1 January 1978): 173–82.

International Labour Office. Central Library and Documentation Branch, “Services of the ILO Central Library and Documentation Branch” (Geneva: ILO, 1982),

Kargul Maccabez, Joelle, Histoire de la Bibliothèque du Bureau international du Travail (Genève : PrivPrint, 1995).

Verein Schweizerischer Archivarinnen und Archivare. BIS Bibliothek Information Schweiz VSA, « Interview with Laurel Dryden, Acting Chief, Bureau of Library”, text/html, arbido, 25 February 2020