The UIA can trace its origins back to 1895, when Henri La Fontaine and Paul Otlet established the International Institute of Bibliography (IIB), otherwise known as the House of Documentation. The IIB was the parent-organization of the Union of International Associations. The Institute was responsible for the development of the widely-used Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). Also in 1895, Otlet and La Fontaine established the Répertoire Bibliographique Universel (RBU). The RBU was an ambitious attempt at developing a master bibliography of the world's accumulated knowledge, and at providing information for retrieval on anything of note published anywhere in the world. By the late 1930's, the RBU had grown to over 12 million entries.
From 1903, the idea of a universal synthesis of knowledge led Otlet and La Fontaine to broaden their scope, previously focused on scientific publications. Newspapers, graphic materials and other information sources were treated in addition. To accommodate this new material, other international institutions were created. This period also saw the birth of 20th century internationalism, and Otlet and La Fontaine were fervent internationalists.
Throughout the pre-1914 period, Belgium was the main host country of the international movement, welcoming up to one-third of the international organizations. The Central Office of International Associations (later the secretariat of the UIA) was founded to enhance collaboration between the organizations, and to serve as a centre for documentation.
The Central Office of International Associations was officially founded under the patronage of the Belgian government on 29 January 1908. Also in 1908, collaboration began with the Institut International de Bibliographie and the Institut International de la Paix on the 1908 and 1909 editions of the Annuaire de la Vie Internationale, the precursor to the Yearbook of International Organizations. It was published from 1910 until 1911 with the support of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It contained descriptions of approximately 150 international organizations.
The UIA was founded at the 1st World Congress of International Associations in Brussels, where 137 international bodies and 13 governments were represented. It was to provide services including management of relations between international associations, study of questions of common interest, creation of new organizations, international instruction, management of publications and documentation, and other general services. Also in 1910, Otlet and La Fontaine first envisioned a "city of knowledge", also known as the World City. Originally named the Palais Mondial, which later became the Mundaneum, the World City's aims were to bring together all leading international institutions in the world, to serve as a central repository for the world's information, to radiate knowledge to the rest of the world, and to construct peace and universal cooperation.
Henri La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize. He entered the organized peace movement when Hodgson Pratt, the British pacifist, came to Belgium in the early 1880's. He became the Secretary-General of the Société Belge de l'Arbitrage et de la Paix in 1889, and thereafter participated actively in virtually all of the peace congresses held in the next 25 years. Also in 1913, the 2nd World Congress was organized in Ghent and Brussels, with 169 international associations and 22 governments represented. It was perceived as "a new milestone along the road to international organization through the unrestricted cooperation of the associations, aided by States".
The work connected with the formation of international associations was carried on actively and increasingly up to the beginning of World War I, when over 500 were in existence. By 1914, the UIA had federated 230 international non-governmental organizations, or around half the total number existing at that time. But at the outbreak of hostilities, the activities of associations necessarily slackened and in some cases ceased altogether.
The UIA began lobbying for a Belgian law providing special legal facilities for international associations. The law was adopted on 25 October 1919, and the UIA was registered as an international association with scientific aims under the new Belgian law on 2 July 1920.
The UIA presented a project for a World Charter of Intellectual and Moral Interests, which led to the creation of the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, precursor of UNESCO. The Institute was established in 1925. Also in 1919, Otlet and La Fontaine were granted space in the left wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire in Brussels to house the Palais Mondial. They conceived it to be like the 101st wonder of the world, a monument to all the material and intellectual glories of the universe, a sacred place of inspiration of grand ideas and noble activities, a treasury of all works of spirit, brought there as a contribution to science and to universal organization.
The League of Nations was established on 10 January 1920, following intensive lobbying for its creation by the UIA. Henri La Fontaine served as rapporteur of the League of Nations commission whose work resulted in the establishment of the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation. Also in 1920, with the support of the League of Nations, the 1st Session of International University took place. Fifty professors from 11 countries confronted about 100 students from over 10 countries, and gave them 106 hours of lectures broken down into 53 classes and conferences; the League of Nations and 13 international associations had special Chairs.
The International Congress on Intellectual Activities was convened by the UIA. The congress proposed draft statutes of an International Confederation of Intellectual Workers, which was then set up in 1923 in Paris. It expressed the hope that "in liaison with the League of Nations and the proposed Intellectual Activities Organization, an International Educational Bureau should be set up for the comparative analysis of information on modern teaching methods". The Bureau was founded in 1925. Also in 1921, the League of Nations began publishing the Handbook of International Organisations / Répertoire des Organisations Internationales, a continuation of the UIA’s Annuaire de la Vie Internationale. This initiative virtually deprived the UIA of continuing to publish its own magazine and yearbook on a satisfactory basis. Publication ended in 1939.
The Palais Mondial was briefly shut down due to lack of support from the Belgian government, but was later reopened after lobbying from Otlet and La Fontaine. The Conference for the Development of the Palais Mondial was held in Brussels.
The UIA published Code des Voeux Internationaux, under the auspices of the League of Nations. This listed those portions of the texts of international organization resolutions which covered substantive matters, including what are now regarded as world problems. It covered 1216 resolutions adopted at 151 international meetings.
Otlet renamed the Palais Mondial as the Mundaneum. When Nazi Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, the Mundaneum was replaced with an exhibit of Third Reich art, and some material was lost. It has since been relocated to a converted 1930s department store in Mons, where the existing museum opened in 1998.
The 7th (and last) World Congress of International Associations was held. Owing to conflicting initiatives, financial difficulties and too many projects that aroused some alarm, La Fontaine and Otlet became more and more isolated in their work. With extraordinary tenacity, they kept on in spite of all. Right up to the outbreak of World War II they continued with their wholly admirable documentary work.
In the 1930s much of the UIA's documentary activities were taken over by the League of Nations. The League paid formal tribute to the UIA's work of documentation and coordination of effort as a "vast enterprise of international intellectual organization, characterized by the breadth of its conception and design".
In 1934 Paul Otlet published one of his most important works, the Treaty of Documentation (Traité de Documentation). It is in this publication that he elucidated his original concept of what would later become the World Wide Web.
The founders of the UIA suffered a series of disappointments and difficulties. After the State took back the Cinquantenaire Palaces, La Fontaine and Otlet were obliged to move with their collections and archives to other premises, and to continue their work in extremely uncomfortable conditions. The German occupation was to complete the disaster when the military government destroyed 63 tons of periodicals.
The work of the UIA was reduced to documentary activities and the publications, in 1943 - 1944, of three issues of a Bulletin of International Associations. The Bulletin was entitled successively as UIA Bulletin Mensuel (1949-1950), NGO Bulletin (1951-1953), International Associations (1954-1976) and Transnational Associations (1977-2005). Henri La Fontaine died on 14 May 1943, leaving his fortune and his library in two equal shares to the UIA and the International Peace Bureau, thus giving an ultimate proof of his faith in the ideals for which he had striven throughout his entire life.
The loss to Otlet was enormous, for even though in their later years they worked very little together, they kept constantly in touch, speaking for hours together on the telephone. A year later on 10 December 1944, Otlet died.
Following the war and the dispersion of its archives, the UIA resumed activity as an institute, separate from the Mundaneum. Offices were established at 1 rue aux Laines, Belgium. New statutes were adopted, placing major emphasis on UIA's role as a clearing house for information on international organizations and their preoccupations, especially in order to facilitate their activity. Editors of Annuaire des Organisations Internationales in Geneva, with the collaboration of the UIA, published the 1st edition of the Yearbook of International Organizations. At that time, the Yearbook contained descriptions of approximately 900 international organizations.
Representatives of the UIA, the United Nations, and the Interim Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations met and decided not to attempt to rebuild the UIA as a federation of international associations, but to retain its title and its programme as a centre for documentation, study, service, and the promotion of closer relations between international associations.
Resolution 334 B (XI) of the UN Economic and Social Council was adopted which established cooperation between the United Nations and the UIA, and confirmed at ECOSOC's 16th Session. "The Committee unanimously expressed its appreciation of the value and usefulness of the Yearbook of International Organizations published by the Union of International Associations. Members voiced the hope that the work of the Union would become even better known both to the public and to Member States and that its continuation would be secured" (UN Doc E/2489). Consultative status was granted to the UIA in 1953.
The UIA was granted consultative status with UNESCO, and later on, several contracts brought UNESCO's aid for bibliographical work and also for a study of NGOs.
A version in French of the 6th edition of the Yearbook of International Organizations was published, under the title Annuaire des Organisations Internationales. Publishing of the Yearbook in French continued until 1980, when it was published under the title Annuaire des organisations internationales: encylopédie de l'action transnationale: description des organisations.
The first edition of the International Congress Calendar was published.
The Select Bibliography on International Organizations 1855-1964 was published. It contained 1,080 bibliographical entries: 350 titles devoted to international organization in general; and 730 titles relating to approximately 214 individual international organizations.
Organization documentation was transferred to a main frame computer service, with in-house cassette input terminals.
The UIA was approached by Klaus Saur in 1973. Saur became the distributor of UIA publications, while the UIA remained the publisher. This relationship continued until 1982 when Saur became the publisher for UIA's publications.
The Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential was first published. It was the result of an ambitious effort to collect and present information on the problems with which humanity is (or perceives it is) confronted. It contained some 12,000 entries, including 2,600 world problems, interlinked by 58,000 cross-references.
The UIA participated from 1978 to 1982 in a United Nations University project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development.
The UIA made experimental use of the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES). Throughout the 1970s the UIA was a strong advocate to international NGOs of the new concept of organizational networking. EIES was the great-great-grandmother of all virtual communities and promoted its significance for the community of non-profit organizations.
The World Forum of Transnational Associations was organized from 23 to 27 June in Brussels, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UIA and the 150th anniversary of Belgium, under the patronage of His Majesty the King of the Belgians. It was attended by 154 representatives of international associations.
The 19th edition of the Yearbook of International Organizations was published. It contained descriptions of 14,784 international organizations; an 80% increase over the previous edition. The UIA partnered with the International Chamber of Commerce for this edition for its production and promotion.
Offices were moved from 1 rue aux Laines to the Maison des Associations Internationales (MAI).
Two new volumes were added to the Yearbook. The Geographic Volume (Vol. 2) - International Organization Participation was a significant step towards greater understanding of country participation in the international community, and of the effect of international organizations on the life of each country. The Subject Volume (vol. 3) - Global Action Networks provided an integrated overview of international activity.
Four new guides were produced in the period 1984 to 1985:
African International Organizations; Arab-Islamic International Organizations; International Organization Abbreviations and Addresses; and Intergovernmental Organization Directory.
The capacity of computers to transform editorial work and production operations became increasingly evident - and remained a continuing challenge. In mid-1985, UIA computer files dating from 1974 were transferred to an in-house network - one of the first in Belgium. The transformation was achieved with technical assistance from the Institute of Cultural Affairs.
Yearbook post-editorial data processing at Computaprint (London) received the Printing World Award of Her Majesty's Stationery Office "for the most innovative application of computers to typesetting".
The first and only volume of the International Association Statutes Series appeared in 1984. It contained the official texts of 393 statutes of international nongovernmental organizations. It was intended to provide new and established international organizations with models of statutes of existing organizations to serve as guidelines.
The 4th edition of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential was published, in 3 volumes. Vol. 1 - World Problems; Vol. 2 - Human Potential - Transformation and Values; Vol. 3 - Actions - Strategies - Solutions.
The 1st edition of Who's Who in International Organizations was published. The UIA had produced a mini-precursor in 1963. It was published periodically as a separate publication up until 2006. Since 2007 it has been published as an additional volume (vol. 6) to the Yearbook of International Organizations.
The International Biographical Dictionary of Religion was published, and later extended and transformed into the World Guide to Religious and Spiritual Organizations, published in 1996. The latter listed 3,495 associations, orders, fraternities, institutes, networks, programmes, and other bodies whose activities centred on religious and spiritual concerns. The early 1990s was a period when the possibility of reference books on CDs was under very active review by many. There was much dialogue between the UIA and KG Saur Verlag and their partners in the USA who had experience with this technology. Discussions led to the production of Encyclopedia Plus on CD-ROM in 1994.
The 1st edition of Yearbook Plus of International Organizations and Biographies was published on CD-ROM, in parallel with the book edition. These years also saw the emergence of the Internet which led to the establishment of UIA's official website.
The Yearbook was extended to 4 volumes with inclusion of the Bibliographic Volume: International Organization Bibliography and Resources.
The World Guide to Logotypes, Emblems and Trademarks of International Organizations was published. Its purpose was to present the pictorial side of international organizations.
In 1998, the UIA began experimenting with Web distribution of the Encyclopedia Online databases.
The Yearbook Online database was launched, in parallel with both the CD and book versions. It was now possible to hyperlink together all the UIA database entries (organizations, problems, strategies, biographies, bibliographies, meetings, human development, values) within the Web environment.
The annual edition of the Yearbook was extended by adding Volume 5 – Statistics, Visualizations and Patterns.
The Calendar Online database was launched.
Volume 6 - Who’s Who in International Organizations that had previously been published periodically as a separate publication was added as a new volume to the Yearbook of International Organizations. Also in 2007, the UIA began centenary celebrations, with activities taking place up until 2010. It is the world's oldest, largest and most comprehensive source of information on global civil society, and to this day, still carries out the visionary concepts of its founders. In developing beyond its initial bibliographical and organizational focus, the UIA seeks ways to recognize, honour and represent the full spectrum of human initiatives and preoccupations.
UNESCO upgraded UIA's consultative status to "Formal Associate Relations" on 4 April 2008. The UIA was one of only 20 organizations worldwide to be granted such status.
The UIA began maintaining UNESCO's Database of NGOs. The customized database of non-governmental organizations, foundations and similar UNESCO partner NGOs is freely accessible to the public, and contains fully searchable profiles in English and French of the above mentioned organizations.
Collaboration began between UIA and Brill, the new publisher of the Yearbook of International Organizations.
UIA's partnership with UNESCO was reclassified to "Associate Status", pursuant to the new Directives concerning UNESCO’s partnership with NGOs.