This paper provides a brief overview of the function of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), both past and present, in particular in the context of its interest in compiling oceanographic data sets. Details are provided of the procedures it adopted to ensure adequate internationally collaborative marine investigations during the first part of the century, such as how it provided a forum for action by its member states, how it coordinated and published the results of scientific programs, and how it provided a foundation, through scientists employed in the ICES Office, for the establishment of the original oceanographic marine databases and associated products, and the scientific interpretation of the results. The growth and expansion of this area of ICES activity is then traced, taking into account the changing conditions for oceanographic data management resulting from the establishment of the National Data Centres, as well as the World Data Centres for Oceanography, which were created to meet the needs of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Finally, there is a discussion of the way in which the very existence of ICES has proved to be a valuable source of old data, some of which have not yet been digitized, but which can be readily retrieved because they have been very carefully documented throughout the years. Lessons from this activity are noted, and suggestions are made on how the past experiences of ICES can be utilized to ensure the availability of marine data to present and future generations of scientists.