The League of Nations Library was, at the beginning, a simple working instrument of the Secretariat.
The Library was founded in 1919 at the same time as the League of Nations. It was first housed in London, in 1920, and then transferred to Geneva, where it was allotted a few offices in the Hôtel National, on Quai Wilson, where the League of Nations was located for the first fifteen years of its existence.
The Library soon began to play an important part in the work of the League of Nations. In 1923, a Committee of Librarians set up by the Council of the League of Nations pointed out the great advantages of setting up a world center for the study of international affairs at the headquarters of the League of Nations.
In 1927, when the League of Nations launched a project for building the future Palais des Nations, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. contributed 2 million dollars to endow the League of Nations with a modern library suitable for the study of international relations.
Although a United States national, (the United States were not a member of the League of Nations), it was Rockefeller's wish that the League of Nations Library be dedicated to "serve as an information center of international research" both for the Secretariat and for students and scholars, and "as an instrument of international understanding".
This donation expressed Rockefeller's strong belief in the role of the League of Nations Library to promote peace through knowledge.
Following this gift, a separate wing was added to the Palais des Nations to house the Library, which opened in 1936. (The United Nations Library is now located in this building). The idea that the Library should be the custodian of the League of Nations' institutional memory had been developed from the original concept of the building. Consequently a large space was reserved within the building to house a League of Nations Museum, which opened in 1947.
The Library soon became established not only as the main point of information and documentation for the work of the Secretariat and the various Commissions of the League of Nations, but also as an important research institute and as an issuing center of its own publications. Thus it needed a specialized staff.
The Library was divided into two main services:
- a legal and political information service, and
- an economic and financial one.
The nature of the Library collections was determined by the articles of the League of Nations Covenant (1920), which defined the missions of the League of Nations. These collections were made of three categories of works in different languages:
- books and brochures (collections of legal, political and economic works),
- official governmental documents (including statistical publications, gazettes and reports of Parliamentary debates of countries from all over the world),
- periodicals and newspapers (including judicial, economic, financial, political and social publications).
The Library collection of laws and official gazettes was the most complete in Europe. The Library also possessed a collection of reference books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, yearbooks, etc.
Books were catalogued according to the Brussels classification system. The catalogue was organized by authors, subjects and titles.
The Library used to publish documents such as:
- a list of international acts (deeds) and legislative treaties, as well as a classification of laws published by Parliaments;
- a weekly list of governmental publications;
- a monthly chronicle of political facts (elections, governmental changes etc.);
- a monthly list of selected articles resulting from the indexing of about 1000 periodicals, (list distributed to all foreign affairs ministers, institutes and universities);
- a monthly list of new books received by the Library;
- a bibliography of works published by the League of Nations;
- a bibliography of all works about the League of Nations.
One of the Library's most important tasks was to make a complete and up-to-date collection of documents and publications issued by the League of Nations organs.
All documents published by the Secretariat and the International Labour Office also represented a great deal of the Library collection. The League of Nations Library also started to develop archival collections relating to peace movements (A. Fried and B. von Suttner archives).