UNESCO’s World Book Capital City programme is one of the most acclaimed international literary projects. Various cities from different parts of the world strive to win this honorable status annually. The project originated Madrid. Six years after the launch of World Book and Copyright Day (April 23), IPA President, Pere Vicens had the idea, inspired by the successful experience of the city of Madrid, to nominate the best city programme aimed at promoting books during the period between one "Book Day" and the next.
On November 2, 2001 the UNESCO General Conference agreed grant UNESCO’s moral and intellectual support to the World Book Capital City initiative.
The Advisory committee, which examines the World Book Capital applications, is made up of representatives of the International Authors Forum (IAF), the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), the International Publishers Association (IPA), and one representative of UNESCO.
According to UNESCO "Cities designated as UNESCO World Book Capital undertake to carry out activities aimed at encouraging a reading culture and diffusing its values across all ages and population groups, both within and outside of national borders. Through the World Book Capital programme, UNESCO acknowledges the cities' commitment to promoting books and fostering reading during a 12-month period between one World Book and Copyright Day and the next (April 23)."
We in the Literacy Subcommittee of the IPA’s Inclusive Publishing and Literacy Committee respect the amazing impact which the World Book Capital project has upon the promotion of literacy in various countries. That’s why we decided to "travel" from city to city and speak more about the wonderful projects that have been implemented, or are planned for the future, and their impact.
We decided to start the series of our WBC blogs by speaking to Ninia Matcharashvili, the director of Tbilisi – World Book Capital project 2021:
Ninia, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Today we are going to talk about one of the largest literary and publishing projects in the history of Tbilisi – the capital of Georgia, “Tbilisi - World Book Capital 2021". Let's first talk about Tbilisi before this project. How would you characterize it? What determines its identity for you? And finally, why Art and Tbilisi? Why the book and Tbilisi?
Gvantsa, thank you very much for once again giving me the opportunity to talk about this project. In my opinion, the "Tbilisi - the World Book Capital 2021" did an excellent job of describing the city, when it stated that Tbilisi is “multifaceted and chaotic. Like a good book, anyone can find something to enjoy.” For me, the identity of Tbilisi was and is associated with the concept of books themselves. Tbilisi, during its sixteen century-long history, has been a historical centre of the Caucasus. Throughout this time, the city has united its population, made up of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds that have enriched the cultural diversity of Tbilisi. One of the best examples of these qualities is one of the small, central districts of the city where one can find find a synagogue, a mosque, and catholic and orthodox churches standing side by side. This mixture has led to an authentic and modern culture that also makes the city an interesting place for foreigners to visit. Tbilisi has become well known because of its sightseeing opportunities, cultural heritage, architectural monuments, world famous culinary traditions, nightlife, and the general tolerance of its local population.
In your opinion, why did UNESCO choose Tbilisi in 2019? Did Georgia being guest of honor at Frankfurt book fair 2018 play a role or did your team have another strategy? How involved were public institutions and the private sector? I’m sure future candidates would be interested;
Obviously our recently earned reputation helped us a lot - presenting Georgia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair was an important aim for the country, as well as for the publishing sector and other businesses. The interest towards Georgian literature has increased both outside and inside the country as a result of the initiative.
As for the application, we followed the instructions that UNESCO set for us precisely and meticulously. There were a few important components listed in regard to obtaining the status: the fact that the application presented public and private sector cooperation, the number of partners and their involvement, that the projects were aimed at readers of almost all ages and interests, and finally, that the project showed innovation. We are absolutely ready to share our experience and help out any cities that are interested in applying for the status of UNESCO World Book Capital.
Now tell us about Tbilisi World Book Capital 2021. What do you consider to be the greatest success in the project and what worked less well?
“OK. So your next book is. . .” - this was our slogan, which hinted and encouraged the continuity of the book reading process. Our design was a colorful and lively city built out of books, which was adapted to each project. As for the concept, I believe that education is the best way to strengthen a community both physically and mentally. Georgia has experienced two wars, one armed civil unrest, and a revolution within the last thirty years. These events shattered the country’s immunity. Our country and all its citizens have been going through a rehabilitation process. However, the immunity is still low. We wanted Tbilisi to be the World Book Capital by 2021 as a means of strengthening our citizens resolve, to be a time that enables people to analyze the past, plan for the future, to find the correct questions and answers, and to make the right choices. The main objective of the concept was to enable people to share a kind of virtual vaccine, or in other words, to multiply this education through the planned activities. Each proposed activity was a logical, thematic continuation of the previous one. Thus, each speaker, group of people, or initiative proposes the next vaccine to the audience or offers the next book to read. The main objective of the project was to popularize reading and increase its accessibility for all social levels, including ethnic minorities and people with special needs. In order to reach that goal, it was necessary to involve publishers, authors, libraries, and universities. The project had two main target groups: the first being those directly or indirectly related to the field of education: pupils, teachers, parents, publisher, author, translator, editor. The second was people with limited access to education: ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. As for successes and failures - the pandemic was the biggest challenge for us. Due to very strict regulations, we were not able to implement large-scale events. We held the opening ceremony itself modestly, with the participation of limited local and international guests. I think our success can be measured by the fact that although the project has ended, the communication platforms we created (our facebook, web page, and Instagram) are still very active and we receive many messages every day. People are constantly asking us to continue the project.
You implemented the project in 2021, in the second year of the world pandemic. The first shock of 2020 seemed to have been more or less passed, but nevertheless, I think the implementation of a such scale, multilayer project during such a hard time should have been related to quite a lot of difficulties. How did you deal with all the obstacles created by the pandemic and what would "Tbilisi - The World Book Capital 2021" have been like otherwise?
It is difficult to say what would have happened had it not been for the pandemic. However, I think that this project would have been more large-scale and international. More people would have come to Tbilisi - authors, readers, publishers. It would have been an even greater celebration of literature. Indeed, many arrived, but personally, I wanted more. But we did not fail any planned project and we received the continuous support of our 20 partner organizations, which was essential. Despite the pandemic, none of the partners stopped supporting us.
As we have already mentioned, the project was bookended by a pandemic, and a brutal war in our region. From a political perspective, what is the role of such international cultural projects for countries like us, which are still fighting to preserve their freedom and peace.
We started with a pandemic and ended with a war. Obviously, we did what we could and what we had to do - we publicly supported Ukraine at the event, which was attended by representatives of about 30 different countries. International events of this type are the best way to create a platform for communication, to convey our voice more clearly to the world. We were able to talk about the oppression and inequality that is happening to us and around us. Moreover, this process became both positive and contagious - I was very happy to hear messages of support for Ukraine at the opening ceremony of the World Book Capital of Guadalajara.
Which Tbilisi World Book Capital projects were you most proud of?
We held 70 small and large-scale activities, all focused on people of different ages and interests. Although there is a lot to say, I will single out a few projects: the Children's Book Fair and the Children's Literary Prize "Nakaduli" were established within the framework of the project. An illustration festival was founded and a bilingual catalogue for illustrators was created. The Museum of Writers Repressed during the Soviet Union was opened in the House of Writers. The project contributed to the discovery of new authors through a collection of debut authors that was published. We also created a database of audiobooks for people with special needs. Another highlight was the extraordinary audio-visual art project called "Echo" that was created, which I believe the whole world should see.
I think the reason why the project implemented in Tbilisi was so well received is because it had something to offer to people of all ages and interests.
I want to focus on literacy. Was it a priority for you to take care of increasing the level of literacy in your country?
Developing a healthy habit of reading is still a problem. It is crucial to nurture regular reading habits among children and adults, to arrange libraries and reading halls and adapt those to the needs of children, to support the publishing industry, and to encourage local authors. The goal of almost all the projects that were implemented last year was to promote book reading, and encourage people to get interested in books. Such projects, despite a short duration of operation, are very important part of achieving the goal. Small steps lead to big goals.
Tbilisi closed the project on April 23, 2022 and handed over the status to the Mexican city of Guadalajara, which will enjoy this status until April 23, 2023. How do you assess the importance of this project for our city/country from this perspective? Do you think it is possible to maintain and further develop any individual projects/achievements? And how do you generally see the literary future of Tbilisi?
We are actively working to maintain and implement several important projects. After the status of "Tbilisi - the World Book Capital 2021" ended, I returned to my previous position – director of Tbilisi libraries and mediatheks, from where I will continue to fight for the development of literacy and promote access to books.
UNESCO has already named the capitals of 2023 and 2024 - Accra and Strasbourg. Do you have a message for them or future candidate cities?
I have active communication with all three cities and I think their programs will be very interesting and fruitful. I am especially glad that the cities have already started to co-operate and plan shared, international events. Guadalajara is putting together an extraordinary project - their events are diverse and there are many readers, authors, and publishers involved. I will only say to Accra and Strasbourg that exciting days await you and to enjoy these days as much as possible. The UNESCO World Book Capital Cities’ Network has already been formed, which is now gaining strength and will provide professional recommendations to absolutely all cities that wish to obtain this status.