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What Does it Mean to Be Designated a City of Literature?

Sarah Brouillette on the Place of Cultural Tourism in the Life of a City

By Sarah Brouillette in, November 15, 2019

The City of Literature program is one of the clearest examples of policy making that targets the developed economies. The International Publishers Association, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and the International Booksellers Federation back the program. These represent the book industry’s three major sectors—publishing, libraries, and bookselling—and they have representatives on the UNESCO nominating committee. The associations collaborate with UNESCO and other stakeholders in the book industries, as well as others within the cities in question, to implement the programs proposed in the application for official designation.

The nomination criteria for Cities of Literature include the quality, quantity, and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses; the quality and quantity of educational programs focusing on domestic or foreign literature in schools, including universities; an urban environment in which literature plays an integral role; experience in hosting literary events and festivals promoting domestic and foreign literature; the existence of libraries, bookstores, and cultural centers that can promote and disseminate domestic and foreign literature; an active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works; and involvement by the media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market. Cities of Literature nominated thus far have included Norwich, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Baghdad, Quebec City, and Krakow.

These cities, like those designated World Book Capitals (a sister UNESCO initiative recognizing programming dedicated to books and reading), become part of the Creative Cities network, if they are not already. This is the broad normative framework that serves as an umbrella for much of UNESCO’s cultural policy work today, especially in the established markets. A city can participate in the network by demonstrating special success in one of a range of fields: literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, media arts, or gastronomy. For a city to be included, it must have substantial evident assets: for example, cultural infrastructure, creative talent, and educational and training facilities. But it must also promise to be an asset to the network. It must have some “added value” for UNESCO itself and be willing to become an ambassador for the Creative Cities network as a whole.

In order to get UNESCO backing, the city must also promise an “in-kind, operational, intellectual and financial contribution.” Cities in the network have demonstrated that they have “public and private infrastructure dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination” of the culture in question; related academic research programs; and media that will promote the activities and practices in question. The sector must be economically vital. There should be professional associations, a growing number of jobs, and fiscal policies in place that encourage growth; and there should be evident initiatives that celebrate cultural producers as the very image of energetic innovation.

These schemes thus treat a city’s literary heritage and present book industry infrastructure as an occasion to develop the cultural tourism and creative economy sectors. Cities compete with one another for attention and accolades. If a city is selected as a UNESCO City of Literature, it earns the right to use the brand and the UNESCO logo is released to it. The right to use the logo and be featured in UNESCO promotional activities is an affirmation of existing activity and success in these fields; it does nothing, however, to address larger industry imbalances or unevenness. Such concerns are very much of the past. Instead, the literary is now treated largely as a brand that inheres in particular lucrative industries—industries built on the model of developed public institutions and private markets with large-scale production for a sizeable literate public. There is no real space here for ephemeral market literatures, things printed by hand, or minority interests like avant-garde poetry.These schemes thus treat a city’s literary heritage and present book industry infrastructure as an occasion to develop the cultural tourism and creative economy sectors.

Those may be fine as curiosities, but they will not on their own earn UNESCO creative-cities branding rights. These programs naturally reflect and feed into broader transformations in the relationship between cultural policy making and urban governance. UNESCO is an intergovernmental organization funded by state contributions, but these relatively new branding schemes reward highly developed, market-based industries and public-private partnerships. Putting together an application for inclusion in the City of Literature program involves public agencies and cultural officials, mayors and administrators, and often private-sector consultants who are paid by the city to help with the staging of the application. What they stress are the potential benefits to private-sector economic growth that arise from cultural activity.

Government involvement is not inconsiderable. City of Literature programming carries on well after the year in which the application is declared successful, and the associated costs are factored into a city’s year-to-year cultural budget. Still, the applications for City of Literature designation tend to emphasize the desire to build capacity for partnerships with private firms, which will realize the potential value to be derived from the various ventures. (To mention just the most obvious example, a literary festival is an excellent boost to a city’s restaurants and hotels as well as an occasion for cultural tourists to support local theaters and booksellers.)

A comparison of Krakow’s application for City of Literature status with that of Dublin reveals additional dimensions and suggests how it has become increasingly necessary for cities to emphasize not just a wealthy literary tradition but also a capacity for the innovative combination of literary resources with other sorts of media production. The Krakow application, which led to its successful designation as a City of Literature in 2013, reiterates UNESCO’s constitutive faith that “literature can contribute to the improvement of social cohesion, stimulate economic growth and the development of creative industries, and have a significant impact on intercultural dialogue.” The city of Dublin’s application, written just as Ireland’s economy was being seriously destabilized by the crisis of 2007–2008, says something similar, stressing that Dublin is in fact “poised to play a leading role in the international promotion of literature as a culturally unifying force.”

The Krakow application highlights stakeholders’ awareness of “the need to strengthen and manage its literary capital” such that the Krakow City of Literature (KCL) project was included in the official Culture Development strategy documents for the city of Krakow for the years 2009–2013 and 2014–2020. The application emphasizes the city’s interest in building respect for “the Krakow Brand,” which, it is hoped, will lead to increased investment in the city, on the part both of private companies and of municipal, regional, and European Union agencies in a position to target Krakow for development. The point is to build on existing wealth, “to strengthen the determined developmental trends leading to the creation of literary capitals in the spirit  of artistic, social and intercultural dialogue” in recognition that “urban development based on literature and artistic activity is not only possible, but also extremely attractive and beneficial.”

The Dublin application, similarly, states that the city has been moving steadily away from manufacturing and toward service-sector employment; the former is said to account for 20 percent of employment and the latter for 80 percent. Cultural tourism is counted as a major employer, while people who say they are traveling as cultural tourists spend an average of 25 percent more than other travelers.

Both the Krakow and Dublin applications emphasize the existing wealth that is evidently required for inclusion in the program: an educated workforce, high levels of employment, renowned universities, dozens of active publishing houses, libraries, and other institutions that support reading and reading-related events, festivals, literary prizes, and so on. They are cities with already vast literary resources, boasting what the Dublin application calls “assets and capabilities” that will be harnessed in the ongoing development of Dublin as “the centre of a creative economic region.” Both cities’ applications also emphasize the potential of literature to help integrate new immigrants, to foster “tolerance” in increasingly multicultural communities by highlighting “migrant voices” and bringing people together for literary events. And both applications mention their willingness to maximize and nurture the UNESCO brand.Where the Krakow application is unique, however, is in the way in which it registers a declining faith that an emphasis on relatively traditional literary culture and institutions is sufficient.It has become increasingly necessary for cities to emphasize not just a wealthy literary tradition but also a capacity for the innovative combination of literary resources with other sorts of media production.

Every application for designation as a UNESCO City of Literature is about profitable industries and employment opportunities in culture and the arts. Like Krakow’s, however, the more recent ones are also about efforts to make literature more interesting and accessible to new generations of potential readers; and they emphasize, also, special efforts made to combine literature as a “soft competency” with the “hard competency” of work in more technology-heavy industries. The Krakow application states that the city’s literary scene “excels in opening up to new forms of literature: e-books, kinetic poetry, e-poetry, city literary games,” and mentions Krakow as “the leader in the digitization of historic literary collections.”

And indeed, one of the most important ongoing projects connected to the Krakow City of Literature program is ReadPL—a joint initiative supported by Krakow’s Festival Office and by, an e-book retailer and platform. It backs the free rental of ebooks and audiobooks with the aim of promoting reading via new technologies. The ReadPL project is indicative of what UNESCO now wants to see in City of Literature programming. It combines public and private stakeholders, and it combines technological development and competence with more traditional culture. UNESCO has thus highlighted the project in its coverage of the City of Literature brand and of culture in Krakow.

Krakow’s application for City of Literature designation focuses extensively on the city’s “unquestionable potential for the development of innovation,” especially indicated by the “high ratio of those employed in the R&D sector to the population” and the “high level of outlays of R&D activities.” In a telling passage, we read that:

Creativity is becoming the crucial type of economic capital in the local economy which uses human intelligence, knowledge and sensitivity to an ever greater extent. Krakow lives on the creative work of scientists, engineers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, designers and professionals in various fields of knowledge. There are around 50 companies providing services for business processes, which employ around 20,000 persons in Krakow and its neighbouring areas. Krakow houses the largest cluster of such companies in Poland, accounting for 40 percent of the employees working in this sector. Outsourcing centres provide a full range of services, from IT support to financial, accounting and legal services. The city is also home to enterprises from the high technologies sector and R&D development centres of large corporations.

One would be forgiven for wondering why this passage belongs in a document that boasts of the city’s literary offerings. Its language partakes, though, of an assumption common to creative-economy policy making: that a key rationale for the development of a cultured environment is a capacity to appeal to a young, talented, technologically skilled workforce. Along these lines, another initiative tied to the Krakow City of Literature program was the offer of a free cloth shopping bag with the purchase of three books from local bookstores (fig. 3), whether “a brick” or “something thinner.” It is a fitting indication of the effort to cultivate local street-level communities of creative consumption among those with enough of an entertainment budget to purchase three books. The assumption is that such people would also be interested in supporting independent businesses and environmental sustainability.

The literary tradition is, here, simply part of a general knowledge economy, where technology and R&D firms, looking to attract and retain employees, recognize that “innovative entertainment products,” including literature, and especially new forms of literary experience, appeal to those with higher levels of education and the right kind of cultural vocabulary and competence. The application states that literature is “entering into new and non-obvious relationships with media technologies, becoming a foundation for the development of the creative sector.” These non-obvious relationships take several forms: there is the actual combination of skills, with people bringing more traditional humanities educations to bear on work in the engineering, science, and technology sectors; and there is cultural experience and exposure as a “favourable condition” for “the creation of innovative undertakings.”

The role of literature in the cultural development of Krakow is thus only in part about the existing wealth of businesses and institutions. It is also about literature’s place in a generally vibrant cultural environment, energizing work and inspiring innovation, and it is about literature’s capacity to be integrated into new media like smartphones and e-readers.

The definition of the literary, and of the literary city, is shifting, in this respect. It is at once about traditional heritage and a multifaceted fount of new innovations. A vibrant literary culture is part of an enriching environment, associated with originality and anti-establishment courage, with freedom of expression and creativity. As such, it is one among many potential attractors for talent working in other creative sectors, including in technology sectors that might not fit our definition of cultural work. Literary writing is material to be featured on new media platforms, and it serves as inspiration for narrative and worldmaking for video games and other “innovative entertainment products” that are poised “at the interface between culture and business.”


UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary by Sarah Brouillette

Excerpted from UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary by Sarah Brouillette. Copyright © Sarah Brouillette 2019. Reprinted with permission from Stanford.

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