It is necessary to make the distinction between the Secretariat and the Registry. The Registry was merely the instrument of the Secretariat, as the latter was the instrument of the League of Nations. What makes matters more complicated is the fact that the Sections of the Secretariat and the classification Sections of the Registry never completely coincided. However, each Section of the Registry received material essentially from one administrative Section or - during the wartime period - from some official who had inherited its functions.
In the early days of the League of Nations, even before its official existence had begun, a "registry" was set up in the Secretariat, following the practice of the British Civil Service, or rather of the Foreign Office as it functioned at that time. This unit was responsible for registering correspondence and for opening files, placing material in them and classifying and indexing them. This Registry, embryonic in form to begin with, served the Secretariat as a whole. Since files were only opened as and when the need arose and were arranged in the order in which they were opened, it became necessary, in order to avoid confusion, to establish in the Registry, early in the summer of 1919, a register of classification sections and even to number those sections.
Thenceforth, there was a kind of divorce between the framework thus established and the general policy of the Secretariat. The head of the Secretariat refused to give a structure of his administration prematurely, wishing to ascertain by practical experience what kind of organization the Secretariat really needed.
Thus if it was necessary to give a certain structure to the Secretariat, it was not easy to define the kind of organization it really needed. Lists of Secretariat sections and even organizational charts were drawn up by Drummond and his staff as early as 1919, after which actual sections were established and their first heads appointed; but those were only provisional arrangements, which needed certain adjustments. It seems that classification sections were created only as and when the need arose. This is the reason why some of these sections later fell into disuse and there was also a certain amount of reclassification. Some sections of the Secretariat, for example, which were set up to deal with labour, women's rights, education, etc., found themselves without any practical objectives, while, as time passed, certain activities that had developed or had not originally been foreseen, made it necessary to create sections which had not been thought of in the first place. Thus it was decided, in order to facilitate the classification system, to provide the divisions established with numbers and titles.
The Registry of the League of Nations was reorganized in 1928 and 1933, this is the reason why we have three chronological series 1919-1927, 1928-1932, and 1933-1946. One of the reasons for the reorganization was the fact that the classification sections of the Registry did not properly correspond to the administrative sections of the Secretariat. This difference was, in some measure, the cause of the formation within the Secretariat of small parallel archives, known as "Section files".
The Secretariat archive group is, therefore, constituted of two categories of files: the Registry files and the Section files.
The Registry files:
The Registry files consist of documents received or produced by the various sections or other administrative units of the Secretariat, but dealt with by the Registry in accordance with official rules.
Initially, the whole system was based on the "document" concept. This particular meaning of the term "document" must not be confused with another special meaning, that of the "documents" of the League of Nations. The word "document" is used, both in French and English, in a very special sense: the "document" was then the basic unit, the small sub-file created by the receipt in the Secretariat of any written paper, to which were then attached items of correspondence, relevant observations ("minutes") and any available reports on the question. It was the registering of the original item which gave rise to the opening of a special jacket and the assignment of a Registry "document" reference number. This procedure was relatively simple: in the main entry book, where the numbers followed each other from one to infinity, the item constituting the essential matter of the "document" was briefly analysed and received a number.
The Registry files of the League of Nations Secretariat always fall within one, and one only, of the three chronological series (1919-1927, 1928-1932 and 1933-1946). Dates seldom overlap. Furthermore, each file bears on it the reference numbers of any files in the other series which may have followed or preceded it.
The physical filing was done according to classification sections and, within them, by dossiers.
The Section files:
The Section files form an integral part of the Secretariat archive group. They represent a mass of non-Registry documents of which the substance, the internal classification, etc., are different for each section of the Secretariat responsible for producing them.
Being spontaneous creations which developed freely, the Section files, unlike the Registry files, have no true official history. It was thought that the central Registry represented an ideal instrument. In fact, the heads and members of section of the League of Nations Secretariat tended to find themselves hampered by the fact that their working files were kept by the Registry. Moreover, far from finding themselves better integrated by a strengthened Registry, the sections more or less consciously defended their individuality by developing their own parallel archives, the Section files, which proliferated more than ever.
In several sections, however, there was also a literal application of the principle laid down by Drummond ("The Registry is the single legitimate home for all the official archives and registered papers"); but others, playing on words, concluded that besides "registered papers" and "official archives", there could be papers which had not been registered and archives that were unofficial. The concept of "private papers" (a term which should not be translated into French as "papiers privés") was used in that connexion, and some sections kept their own files (sometimes, as in the case of the Economic and Financial Section, they even had their own registry), often to the detriment of their official files. Moreover, some sections and services contrived to secure recognition of their autonomy.
Among these Section files are, for instance, the "private papers" of heads or even ordinary members of a section (memoranda, confidential papers, duplicates of correspondence handled by the Registry), basic documents of which only a synopsis was registered (material for reports, replies to questionnaires, drafts of mimeographed documents), chronological series of correspondence which has not been classified according to subject, etc. Depending on the case and the point of view, Section files can be either more, or less, interesting than the Registry files; sometimes they duplicate the latter; sometimes they supplement them. The Section files sometimes have their own indexes, but the official Registry indexes never refer to them. These files constitute records which are naturally less orderly and less complete; but the manner in which they were built up, which was purely functional, has the advantage of linking them very closely with the Secretariat Sections concerned, and thus with decision-making.
If the Section files are sometimes in disorder or incomplete, the worst, however, is the elimination of some files, because the Sections were left virtually free to sort and keep their own files. Moreover, because of the move in 1936, and the 1940 crisis, irreparable destruction was carried out. We therefore no longer have any Section files for the Political Section after 1933, except those relating to the "Administrative Commissions". Similarly, the section files of the Health Section were almost entirely destroyed in 1955.
The Section files were numbered in accordance with the methods of the secretaries or heads of Sections. But this numerical classification system appeared obsolete and it was, then, decided to give the Section files new reference numbers.