Prague hosts first-ever UNESCO Cities of Literature digital conference

by Ali Bowden
Communication Support

6 October 2020

Cultural leaders from the 39 international Cities of Literature met digitally for the network’s first online meeting (21-25 September), hosted via Zoom by Prague City of Literature.

The UNESCO Cities of Literature network brings together 39 cities across 6 continents. While the designation marks existing literary excellence within a city, becoming a UNESCO City of Literature also gives cities a place within a supportive network who share and collaborate with each other. It calls upon cities to nurture creativity, support freedom of speech, and ensure literature reaches as wide and diverse an audience as possible.

Ruth Plowden, Chair, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature said:

“The Cities of Literature network, which began as a bright idea in Edinburgh, is now an astonishing collection of global communities which put creativity at the heart of their cities’ future development. Resources and ideas are shared in a spirit of generosity and collaboration. It was inspiring to see such a wide range of cultures and languages united by a single mission.”

During this year's digital conference, the Cities of Literature showcased best practice and workshopped a range of collaborative projects, as well as launching their new shared website:

Edinburgh was represented by staff and board members from the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust which is the development agency for Edinburgh as a UNESCO City of Literature. It works to bring literature to the streets of Edinburgh, involving people in the city’s literary life, bringing organisations to work together collaboratively for greater impact, and sharing Edinburgh’s literary story with the world.

Edinburgh was also joined by Open Book as part of the best practice sharing sessions. Claire Urquhart, Director and Founder of Open Book, took the network through the organisation’s model, and shared some of the exciting work they’ve been carrying out in support of Scotland’s readers and writers.

Kateřina Bajo, Director, Prague UNESCO City of Literature said:

“While an online meeting cannot recreate the joyous coming together of our network members, the cultural exchange and the stimulation of creativity that a gathering of people in our beautiful city would have brought, we hope the spirit of the annual meeting will live on in this new virtual format.”

A key focus at the meeting was work being done to support recovery, resilience and sustainability for the creative community in each city, as well as working to effect positive change in the context of important social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the global climate crisis.

Sandeep Mahal, Chair of the UNESCO Cities of Literature subgroup and Director of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature said:

“We’re actively progressing our priority areas: to improve pathways for writers, commit to translation projects and collaborate on future book fairs and festivals, and in particular to conceive solutions to worldwide challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 such as improving literacy and social mobility and promoting equality.”

UNESCO City of Literature Designation

In 2004 Edinburgh was designated the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, a permanent title celebrating Edinburgh's status as a literary capital and pioneer in the UNESCO creative cities network, which now has 246 member cities in seven creative artforms. The concept of a City of Literature was devised in Edinburgh by the Trust’s founding members and there are now 39 UNESCO Cities of Literature in the world.

Prague UNESCO City of Literature

Prague, originally scheduled to host the conference face-to-face, has been a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network since December 2014. Prague’s most longstanding and significant project is the Prague residential programme, which offers 6 residential stays annually for foreign authors and translators. Prague facilitates accommodation, travel, a stipend, and literary events and readings for the visiting authors.

Another special project, Touches of World Literature, is a cycle of author readings taking place in collaboration with Prague City of Literature and the Museum of Czech Literature, aiming to showcase global literature and its creators. The bilingual programme guarantees appeal to both Czech and international audiences. The programme also includes an artistic interpretation of the texts by professional actors.

Delegates at the conference were proud to courier children’s books from their cities to the Prague UNESCO City of Literature Office for donation to the Public Library.

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