Map Collection Research Guide

History of the League of Nations Map Collection

The Need for Cartographic Resources

Colonel Sir Walter Coote Hedley (KBE CB CMG), head of the Geographical Section of the General Staff at the War Office in London, recommended in a June 6, 1919 memo the creation of a Geographical Section, as ‘an essential part of the Secretariat’, modeled after the section of the Geographical Section of the General Staff (GSGS) that was detached from London to Paris to support the work of the Peace Conference following World War I by providing maps, advice in geographical questions and the organization of boundaries commissions.[1]

In Col. Hedley’s view, the immediate responsibilities of such a geographical section under the Secretariat of the League of Nations, due to the role of the latter in world affairs, should be:

  • to produce maps, as required, of all parts of the World;
  • to produce expert advice and accurately define boundary lines, past, present and future;
  • to prepare maps and diagrams to illustrate papers and proposals[2].

Further, the memo envisages a leadership and supervisory role for the section in promoting the production of international maps and map series at different scales, of Flying Maps as proposed at the Peace Conference, as well as ordering surveys of areas of interest.

To build the map collection, the memo recommended that the Secretariat require all members of the League of Nations ‘to send copies of all their maps and of all new maps as they were prepared’ to its headquarters in Geneva. This would ultimately become the most important source of acquisition of maps at the League of Nations.

As the Peace Conference was drawing to a close, Col. Hedley’s memorandum promoted a ‘bodily’ transfer of the majority of staff, equipment and stock of maps of the GSGS in Paris to Geneva:

7. If the Geographical Section as it exists at Paris could be moved bodily with its very complete stock of Maps, Draughtsmen and reproduction facilities to Geneva it would certainly meet the needs of the League of Nations to start with. The personnel is almost entirely Military however and for the most part is not available, though part of it is to be shortly demobilised. However before all the maps and map presses and printing and photographic plant is sold or sent back to England it would be well to consider whether it should not be diverted to Geneva. Many of the Maps are the property of the War Office and could not be diverted but much could be sent.[3]

However, this vision of a Geographical Section was never realized, being deemed as ‘greatly out of proportion to our present plans for other sections’ as Cpt. Walters noted in a letter to the Secretary General, advocating for something on a much smaller scale:

I should have thought that we ought to be content, probably for a long time, to have an adequate collection of maps in charge of one official of rank roughly corresponding to a Staff Officer, 3rd. Class, who should be in the department of the Registrar and Librarian…[4]

Ultimately, this more modest plan prevailed, and a map collection was established within the Library of the League of Nations at the League’s Headquarters at the Palais Wilson.


[1]UNOG Archives, R1260/18/26/26, Col. W.C. Hedley, Memo on the necessity for a Geographical Section as part of the Secretariat of the league of Nations, July 2, 1919

[2] While the memo foresees geographers and draftsmen as being permanently employed, the personnel files of the League of Nations contains files of draftsmen on temporary contracts, employed for the purpose of drafting maps and diagrams for League documents – see Personnel Files, S888/193/3394, Mr. Stordiau René, 1926-1942.

[4]UNOG Archives, R1260/18/26/26, Cpt. Walters to the Secretary-General, June 7, 1919.

The Early Years: 1919-1927

With regard to the organization of the Library of the League of Nations, and subsequently of its map collection, the first questions that needed a quick answer were those related to its character and purpose, as raised by Florence Wilson, the newly appointed Assistant Librarian[1].

Should it be a a first class and comprehensive Library on every sort of international subject, accessible to outside research workers as well as to people engaged in the service of the League; or whether it should be restricted to the dimensions of a collection of hand books for the daily use of the sections of the Secretariat?’

The differences of opinion to these questions were more a matter of emphasis; ultimately in this early phase, the concept of the working library serving the pressing needs of the work of the Secretariat and all other Organizations and Commissions connected with the League, the Council, the representatives of Members of the League of Nations, as well as permanent delegations took precedence. Within this library framework maps were listed as being essential: 

the staff maps of various countries, some of the detailed geological maps, especially of the regions of mineral deposits - decent ethnic maps, European war maps, series such as Phillip's Comparative Wall map, the Oxford series of wall maps, and a select list of atlases.[2]

During this period, efforts were being made to acquire a supply of maps and atlases from the Geographical Society of the General Staff at the War office in London or through requests made to the member states governments to send maps of their own country.[3]


[1]S908/213/3787, Personnel file, Florence Mary Wilson, Assistant Librarian and Librarian at the League of Nations Library, 1919-1926.

[2]Library Organisation Memorandum prepared by the then Assistant Librarian Florence Wilson, Feb. 13, 1920. S1698-1, Pdf 39; R1260/18/2635/2064.

[3] See LON registry file boxes R1260, R1261.

1927-1936: Maps at the League of Nations' Rockefeller Library

In 1927, John Rockefeller, the American philanthropist, made a donation for the construction and appointment of a new library at the planned location where the League of Nations were to have its headquarters, from the Palais Wilson on Lake Geneva to what became the Palais des Nations in Ariana Park.

The basic documents on the creation of the League's Rockefeller Library - the Memorandum presented by the Secretary General to the Council, September 9, 1927, and the Council Resolution of the same date stated the duties of the Library to be:

a) To assist the work done under the auspices of the League

b) To provide a study centre on international relations.[1]

During this period, both the Library and its map collection appear to have been consolidated, having established relationships with libraries around the world and working with member state governments for the supply of publications, including maps. By 1929, the new Librarian, T.P. Sevensma,[2] proudly described the map collection of the Library to his audience at the Association of French Librarians as

a very big collection as it is used in the majority of studies undertaken by the League of Nations on political and technical subjects on which one has to study first the topography and the descriptions of the countries in question, (Upper Silesia, loan to Austria or Greece, etc). A special room has been designated for the collection of maps, and there is the hope to be able to complete and keep up to date the collection of official maps with the cooperation of governments so that the collection becomes an important source of documentation’.[3]

Another important step for the map collection was the appointment of a new qualified librarian to take charge of the geographical department of the library, Sigurd Hartz Rasmussen.[4] He took charge of the arrangement and classification of the maps and atlases collections, compiling carto-bibliographies relevant to the Mandates sections, while pointing to those maps and materials in the possession of the LON and recommended procedures for the sections using and requiring maps to:

a) Stamp the maps and to note their use with the name of the section, and to transfer those not in constant use in a given section to the geographical department of the library;

b) To keep separate lists of maps transferred to the library or kept at the section, with copies for both sections and library, while outlining the advantages of such handling[5].


[1]S1862 -4,A.G. Breycha-Vauthier, Assistant Librarian to Mr. A. Sweetser, Princeton New Jersey

Geneva, July 10th, 1941.

[2]T. P. Sevensma , 1.9.1927-1938: Librarian, Library; from 1.1.1932, assimilated to Chief of Section

[3]S1682-1, Library Section Files, League Archival Documents, -(1928-1946), Dossier Memos &c.(correspondence) on the Library, 1928(?)-1938, undated.La Bibliothèque de la Société des Nations, T. P. Sevensma, Association des Bibliothécaires Français, Paris, Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 5, Quai Malaquais, Vie, Dec. 1929, p. 6.

[4]S 790/95/1634, Personnel File - Sigurd Hartz Rasmussen, Senior Assistant, League of Nations Library, 13 May 1931-31 Dec. 1940.

[5] Registry files, R4137/6A/14947

1936-1946: The Final Years of the League of Nations

This period is marked by ups and downs for both the League itself and its different departments, including the Library and within it the map collection. In a 1935 report, T.P. Sevensma, appointed as the Library’ Chief of Section, lamented the conditions of the Library and the lack of progress towards the construction of the Library at its new location at the Palais des Nations.

Pour l'opinion publique, qui ne peut pas se rendre compte des difficultés éprouvées, la situation actuelle de la Bibliothèque est incroyable : la Société des Nations a en 1927, accepté un don de 2 millions de dollars pour sa Bibliothèque; en 1938, il n'y a qu'un bâtiment inachevé qu'il est impossible d'exploiter de la façon prévue.[1]

Although the move to its new location at the Palais des Nations in Ariana Park in the spring of 1936 resulted in ‘superior facilities for the library’, problems arose due to a change of leadership at the library and earlier on at the helm of the League itself, practicality as the library and its users were separated spatially and the acquisition of transportation installations for materials was denied by the Administration.[2]

Later on, the World War II brought physical privations and restrictions, but also the worries and the efforts the people undertook to ensure the library would have a future as the following letter from 1941 from the Assistant librarian, A.G. Breycha-Vauthier, Assistant Librarian to Mr. A. Sweetser, Princeton New Jersey, Geneva, July 10, 1941

Dear Sweetser,

I have been feeling sometimes these last weeks a certain uneasiness about the future of the Library in connection with decisions that might be taken at the forthcoming meeting of the Supervisory Commission. You always have been amongst the "Haute Direction" the one who understood that an intellectual centre like the Library presented other problems than purely administrative or political Secretariat business. Presuming that you will be present at this forthcoming meeting, but not knowing if the Library shall have anybody presenting its case as it deserves to be, I should like to provide you with some arguments. This letter is of course purely private; moreover I hope that the possible emergency will not materialize, but I would not have done my duty if I did not try to safeguard the continuance of our work.[3]


[1]S1682-1, Dossier Memos &c.(correspondence) on the Library, 1928(?)-1938, memo on the progress and state of library by T. Sevesna, undated, pdf pp 18-27).

[2]Sigurd H. Rasmussen, My Journey through the Twentieth Century. Things that happened, People I met, 186, reprinted with photographs, 1999, pp. 74-80.

[3]S1862-4, A.G. Breycha-Vauthier, Assistant Librarian to Mr. A. SWEETSER, Princeton New Jersey

Geneva, July 10th, 1941

Documents relating to the acquisition of the map collection can be found in the Archives, in Section files S2542-S2543.

Click the image above to discover these documents!