You've heard of UNESCO World Book Capital, but did you know it was an IPA idea?

The UNESCO-led World Book Capital sprang from the runaway success of World Book and Copyright Day, launched in 1996, when UNESCO nominated Madrid as the first World Book Capital, for 2001. Thereafter, UNESCO's General Conference adopted a resolution, on 2 November 2001, establishing the yearly nomination of World Book Capital.

The idea for World Book Capital originally came from the mind of Pere Vicens (pictured below), when he was President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), based on the all-round positive experience of World Book and Copyright Day. As it happens, World Book Day was also Pere's idea. He successfully proposed it to UNESCO, in 1995, when he was president of the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds (FGEE).Pere Vicens crop

After the Frankfurt Book Fair, in 2000, Pere Vicens and Ana Maria Cabanellas, then president of the Grupo Iberoamericano de Editores (Ibero-American Group of Publishers) and later president of the IPA, sought UNESCO support for the programme, as well as inviting the International Federation of Library Association (IFLA) and European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) to join as the selection jury. UNESCO welcomed the idea, and since then the project has been run under the UNESCO flag.

The idea from the beginning was that the programme should be suitable for the needs of each city. It should have impact and sustainability lasting long after the designated year was over. The juries wanted to see all stakeholders in the book trade and the reading public get involved in the programme. Very simply, the deeper the public engagement, the more valuable and successful the project. World Book Capital has no financial prize; its reward is recognition of the best books and reading programme.

Subsequent cities after Madrid were Alexandria (Egypt) in 2002 and New Delhi (India) in 2003. Then, following public calls for candidates, the Selection Committee gathered at UNESCO headquarters, in Paris, and successively nominated the cities of Antwerp (Belgium) for 2004, Montreal (Canada) for 2005, Turin (Italy) for 2006, Bogota (Colombia) for 2007, Amsterdam (Netherlands) for 2008, Beirut (Lebanon) for 2009, Ljubljana (Slovenia) for 2010, Buenos Aires (Argentina) for 2011, Yerevan (Armenia) for 2012, Bangkok (Thailand) for 2013, Port Harcourt (Nigeria) for 2014, Incheon (Republic of Korea) for 2015, Wroclaw for 2016, and Conakry (Guinea) for 2017.

Apart from the budget, one of the application requirements in the 20-page proposal is that it must be applied for and signed by the city mayor. The reason for this is that the juries believed that local government involvement would be a significant endorsement and ensure public participation, as well as continuity, to the project. Later, a requirement was added that the designated city should pass from continent to continent.

My involvement in the World Book Capital City began when I attended the inauguration of Buenos Aires, in 2011. Although I didn’t get to see Marta Minujin’s Tower of Babel, a 25-metre-high spiral made of 30,000 books in different languages, I was bitten by the excitement. In the early days, after the designated year was over, the working team usually dissolved, but Yerevan set a new precedent in 2013. Its lynchpin, Nerses Ter-Vardanyan, suggested a meeting in Frankfurt between Buenos Aires, Yerevan, and Bangkok, which we did. We were thinking of handing over a symbolic object from the previous city to the newly designated city at the opening ceremony, and some cultural presentation. One of the outcomes of that meeting was Frankfurt Book Fair’s agreement to provide the World Book Capital with a free stand for the designated city to create publicity.

Yerevan was a city of one million people, and the opening of their World Book Capital was awe-inspiring, with a concert by Andrea Bocelli and thousands of children parading in the street. A laser show of the Armenian alphabet projected onto the library wall was wondrous, but it didn’t end there. The Armenian book trade and all stakeholders became more active, at both national and international levels, in the wake of the event. 

The following year, in Bangkok, was different. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, consisting of 50 districts, is responsible for a total population of almost 14 million, including non-Thais. Some Bangkok districts have larger populations than some provinces. But the legacy of the event was very positive: reading stats, which years before had showed Thais read just eight lines per day, were showing that average Thai reading time had risen to 40 minutes per day! Forty city libraries received more funding to purchase new titles, including the Ban Nangsue (book house) project, a volunteer-run community library made of two stacked 12-metre containers. And one real estate development company has added a reading room to every one of its condominium projects. In all, the outcome was very satisfying.

One of Bangkok’s nine strategic objectives was to turn its old city hall into a library. The ambitious plan was not possible because the great flood in 2011, which affected the construction of the new city hall. To date, the administration is still operating at the old city hall but Bangkok went ahead with the library construction at a different site.

Port Harcourt became the first African designated World Book Capital City in 2014. Nigeria is rich with literary giants, including the late Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was good to hear Professor Soyinka’s address at the opening ceremony, although the occasion was overshadowed by the kidnapping of 200 school girls from Chibok.

In 2015, the book capital returned to Asia, and the South Korean city of Incheon. Though there had been a mayoral election before the inauguration, the new mayor got on board and the project went ahead. Incheon has been able to incorporate its old literary tradition into the modern literary trends. Now we are only waiting anxiously to hand over the title of the 17th Book Capital City to Wroclaw, Poland, this April.

World Book Capital City has come a long way. These past 16 years we have seen steady growth. Each city has had its own unique agendas, priorities and issues. To draw local administrations to work together with the public has been a challenge, as both sectors understand how important it is to invest in culture and youth. Countries like Thailand and South Korea have low birthrates, while Nigeria and Armenia have large populations under the age of 25. The World Book Capital project can certainly be strengthened by developing and establishing a network of designated cities. This would create a real culture of cooperation and interchange.

We want to ensure that the project continues despite changes in local governments, despite ideological struggles, and that sponsorship for the initiative continues. Let us remain committed to the success of this valuable, visionary project.

UNESCO is now collecting nominations for World Book Capital 2018. NOMINATE HERE.



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