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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Information Services of the International Labour Organization: A 75-Year History

Eleanor G. Frierson, Chief, Central Library and Documentation Bureau, International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland
Joëlle Kargul-Maccabez, Library Science Intern, International Labour Office
Sue Luzy, Senior Librarian, International Labour Office


This paper outlines the historical development of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialized agency of the UN, focussing on the role and functions of its network of information servic es worldwide. The ILO's mission is the promotion of democracy, the fight against poverty and the protection of working people everywhere. Information gathering, publishing and dissemination have be en prime activities of the ILO since its inception in 1919. To this end, the ILO Central Library plays an important role in the development of information standards and tools which can be used not o nly by the ILO's own information services, but also by information managers in ministries of labour and in employers' and workers' organizations in the ILO's 171 member States. The paper describes t he setting up of the International Labour Information System (ILIS) to promote information exchange, and the ILIS Referral System which gives access to many ILO-produced databases, and closes with a summary of recent trends, such as the move towards inter-library cooperation within the UN system, in particular the standardization of bibliographic data and improvement of electronic systems for sh aring library data.



The International Labour Organization (ILO) was created in 1919 at the end of the First World War, the need for such an organization having first been advocated in the 19th century by two industrial ists, Robert Owen of England and Daniel Legrand of France. In 1994, the ILO celebrated its 75th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Philadelphia which launched the organizatio n into a new era of action for the welfare of working people after the Second World War. The Declaration anticipated and set a pattern for the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Right s, and in 1946 the ILO became the first agency associated with the UN.

The ILO is the only UN agency with a tripartite structure, where governments, employers' and workers' organizations from 171 member States are represented at all levels. The International Labour Of fice is the Organization's permanent secretariat, employing some 1,900 officials of over 110 nationalities in its Geneva headquarters and 40 field offices worldwide, plus 600 experts engaged in techn ical co-operation projects. The Office also constitutes a research and documentation centre and a publishing house issuing a broad range of specialized studies and reports.

The ILO's priority objectives are the promotion of democracy, the fight against poverty, and the protection of working people, and it is currently focusing on five key themes: international labour s tandards and the defence of human rights; equality for women; employment promotion and structural adjustment; the rural and informal sectors; and, environment and the world of work.


Of paramount importance to the accomplishment of the ILO's work is the annual International Labour Conference where government, employers' and workers' delegates discuss international labour standar ds relating to all aspects of work. Some of these become ILO Conventions and Recommendations, the former being binding on all countries that ratify them. The annual conference reports and texts of Conventions and Recommendations are core ILO publications, and are complemented by reports of the ILO's regional conferences, sectoral committees and meetings. The ILO also publishes statistical inf ormation, notably the Yearbook of Labour Statistics.

Scholarly articles on labour and employment are published in the International Labour Review. Other periodical publications include Labour Law Documents, World Labour Report, Conditions of Work Dig est, Labour Education, International Labour Documentation, Safety and Health at Work Bulletin, and the World of Work.

Books published include studies on major international labour and social issues, standard reference works, technical guides, codes of practice, workers' education material, and management textbooks.

In 1992-1993, the ILO published and placed on sale 460 titles and meeting reports in seven languages, and 32 reprints, and had more than 4,800 titles in print, of which about 2,300 were in English, 1,480 in French, and 1,080 in Spanish, as well as documents in Russian, German, Arabic, and Chinese.


Most of the ILO's information services are based on an important information network connected to the ILO Central Library. The Library, which has the administrative status of a Bureau, and reports directly to ILO senior management, has two principal objectives: to collect and disseminate key information on labour and related issues, and, to enhance the capacity of Ministries of Labour, employ ers' and workers' organizations, ILO staff and partner institutions, to make effective use of this information.

Following its creation in 1919, the ILO acquired the libraries of the International Association for Labour Legislation, the International Association on Unemployment and the International Associatio n for Social Progress, thus providing the ILO Library with a particularly rich foundation in labour history that includes some very rare 19th century works. Other special materials added over the la st 75 years include a major collection of Russian and Soviet newspapers, a collection of German publications from the Nazi era, and selected publications from member States, notably a comprehensive s et of official gazettes. These materials are all available to Library clients, generally upon demand and without charge. Over the years, the ILO Governing Body has emphasized the special role of th e Central Library in carrying out the core mandate of the Organization.

In addition to the Central Library, the ILO information network includes several specialized information centres in Geneva, three regional documentation centres in Abidjan, Bangkok and Lima, and sma ller centres in other offices worldwide. The statistical, legislative, and other departments also participate in the dissemination of information through the network. Members receive technical direc tion from the Central Library, but report administratively to their parent units at Headquarters and in the field.


In the 1980s the ILO set up a programme called the International Labour Information System (ILIS). It has three aims: 1) to coordinate the ILO's bibliographic information systems; 2) to strengthen the information services of the ILO's external offices and the exchange of information between these offices and Headquarters; and, 3) to assist member States to improve their capacity to manage and use labour information.

Coordination of bibliographic information systems requires development and use of common tools and formats for recording and searching for computerized information. The Central Library recommends u se of the ILO Thesaurus for subject indexing and searching, and the softwares MINISIS or Micro CDS/ISIS for bibliographic database management. Several documentalists working in ILO specialized docum entation centres participate in producing LABORDOC, ILO's principal bibliographic database, which is managed by the Library. Others manage their own database, linked to LABORDOC, and generally inclu ding references drawn from LABORDOC plus their own records.

In addition to providing standard information processing tools and systems, the Central Library trains staff in their use through seminars held in the field and at Headquarters. Clients needing ILO information can increasingly count on the services and availability of trained personnel in ILO field offices. These colleagues normally manage local collections of ILO publications and information products, including CD ROMs, and may also have on line access to the ILIS Referral System, described below. Many field offices are now in a position to provide Headquarters with printed and electron ic records from local databases, which can be integrated into the Central Library's databases, or used for reference purposes.

To assist member States in developing or reinforcing an appropriate information management infrastructure, the ILO provides them with many of the same standard systems and tools that are used within the Organization. Over the last ten years, ILO information personnel have trained information managers from member States at Headquarters and have undertaken many technical cooperation advisory and training missions in the field.

The ILO has received feedback that the ILIS Programme is highly appreciated by member States. The demand for assistance exceeds available resources. Since the ILO is one of the few UN agencies wit h a mandate and programme to provide such services and advice, the Central Library frequently receives requests from individuals and institutions in other fields for copies of its training tools and manuals and for information about its ILIS programme and information systems. The Library is always happy to help whenever possible and is pleased that some of the ILO information management trainin g tools, standards, policies and practices have been adapted by institutions not directly concerned with labour matters. For example, the Library's labour information training pack has been adapted f or use in specialized courses on designing agricultural information centres.


In 1987, the Central Library set up the ILIS Referral System, which offers direct online access to a variety of ILO databases developed using MINISIS software and resident on the Headquarters Hewlet t Packard computer. Information personnel at Headquarters and in the field have access to ILIS, and staff of labour information centres in member States are increasingly requesting passwords. As th e installation of the Headquarters enterprise network nears completion, more staff members are enjoying the benefits of direct access to the databases from their offices. ILIS offers three levels of search access, simple, intermediate, and advanced, and allows searching in several languages depending on the available linguistic versions of the tools used for data indexing.

Documentation centres in ILO external offices or constituent organizations that cannot access ILIS have the option of requesting diskettes for use in an ILO developed LABORDOC Micro CDS/ISIS applica tion. Normally the diskettes, supplied quarterly, contain a customized subset of references drawn from LABORDOC. Some of the other ILO electronic information publishers, such as the Bureau of Stati stics, also offer diskette services.

The CISDOC and LABORDOC databases, as well as the ILO Thesaurus, are also available through several commercial and non profit host systems. The CISDOC, NATLEX, ILOLEX and LABORDOC databases are avai lable on CD-ROM, and a CD-ROM version of the Encyclopedia of Occupational Safety and Health is forthcoming. Most of the host systems are accessible via Internet.


The ILO Library has been an active participant in the international inter library lending network for many years and usually does not charge for items provided under its standard arrangements, inclu ding the provision of photocopies and microfiche. Through the ILIS Programme, the libraries and documentation centres of ILO external offices and ILO associated training centres have been encouraged to cooperate among themselves and with ILO Headquarters, as well as with other national and regional libraries and documentation centres.

With the goal of enlarging the impact of information services within the UN system, the ILO Library has recently put considerable emphasis on supporting several UN system inter-library cooperative i nitiatives. The ILO Library started a forum for discussion among UN libraries in Geneva concerning possibilities for the development of a shared collection development policy, particularly necessary in a climate of budgetary austerity and significant price inflation. The Library also serves as the lead agency of the UN Information Systems Co-ordination Committee Task Force on Inter-Library Co- operation, Standards, and Management (ISCC-TF/LIB). This group, comprised of most UN agency libraries, is working together to convert UN bibliographic data to meet international standards, and estab lish a variety of improved electronic systems for sharing this data within the UN system and with clientele in member States.


The ILO has recently adopted an "Active Partnership Policy" with member States, and in line with its goals, has created a number of multidisciplinary teams around the world. The Library and other I LO information services providers will be involved in the enormous task of supporting the work of these teams and of responding rapidly to new types of information needs. As one possible way to meet these demands and those of its existing clientele, the Library is exploring a variety of ways to use the INTERNET, electronic mail and other new technologies.

Now that telecommunications networks and international data and format standards are so widespread, the ILO would prefer to work with others, whenever possible, to develop and share new information systems and services. The CIS service has already established an international network of partners. The Library has developed some links of its own, including membership in the On line Computer Libr ary Center (OCLC), the non profit library run international cooperative network that now has members in almost 100 countries. The shared OCLC on line catalogue, with more than 30 million records con tributed by more than 20,000 member libraries, seems an attractive option for supplementing or replacing more traditional and proprietary cataloguing practices.

Throughout its history, the ILO has welcomed opportunities to collaborate with institutions that are also interested in providing improved access to labour information. The ILO Central Library woul d be pleased to explore additional links with institutions and expand its partnerships so that labour information will one day be available on a truly global basis.

Further details on ILO's information services are given in a separate brochure: ILO Information Services: brief description and list of contact persons. ILO Library, Geneva, 1995.

Contact Persons at International Labour Office, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland: