This week UNESCO announced that Krakow, Poland is the next site designated as a “City of Literature.” The Cities of Literature program is a network of cities that promote and cultivate a growing and sustained commitment to literary culture. Other cities in the network include: Edinburgh (Scotland), Melbourne (Australia), Iowa City (Iowa, United States), Dublin (Ireland), Reykjavik (Iceland), and Norwich, England. This growing network of literary cities is one of the many wonderful aspects of the entire UNESCO project.
So what is a “city of literature?” According to UNESCO’s website, it’s defined as:
UNESCO Cities of Literature work together to build strong global partnerships: encouraging literary exchanges, creating cross-cultural initiatives and developing local, national and international literary links. Each City will also be dedicated to pursuing excellence in literature on a local level, engaging citizens in a dynamic culture of words.
Through literature and the idea of the city as a site of cultural and economic exchange ideas are promoted that encourage literacy, cultural exchange, and the importance of the book to name a few. But, how does a city of literature get chosen? Once again, according to UNESCO’s website:
Cities of Literature: Criteria
• Quality, quantity and diversity of publishing and editorial initiatives
• Quality and quantity of educational programmes
• Urban environment in which literature plays an integral part
• Experience hosting literary events and festivals, promoting foreign and domestic texts
• Libraries, bookstores and cultural centres
• Active effort to translate literary works from diverse languages
Use of new media to promote and strengthen the literary market
Once the criteria are met cities are encouraged to apply for the honor. The idea of a city of literature is a wonderful designation that can also bring much needed economic gain to the awarded city. It can be viewed as a low stakes version of the city chosen by the Olympic Committee.
It’s a little bewildering to know that the only North American city that is part of the program is Iowa City. One wonders how New York, the publishing capital of the world, has yet to be chosen. Moreover, there is also Boston, and that most literary of cities, Seattle. Still, Iowa City is a highly literary city that one can be proud of. More bewildering still is the fact that Paris is conspicuously absent from this list, not to mention Madrid, Turin, and Frankfurt.
All in all, UNESCO’s Cities of Literature program should be applauded, especially in an age where the so-called death knell of the book and bookstores is ringing so loudly in this digital age.