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It’s Lit: Seattle Designated an Official UNESCO “City of Literature”

Posted by Johnine Larsen on November 2, 2017
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Friends, Seattleites, and all lovers of the arts—please welcome Seattle, the newest “City of Literature,” as designated by The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO). This new title launches Seattle into an elite group. Only 28 Cities of Literature exist world-wide, including Edinburgh, Melbourne, Reykjavík, and Baghdad. Iowa City is the only other U.S. city.

Seattle’s literary proficiency extends all the way back to the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples here, and has since grown to include writers such as Sherman Alexie, Charles R. Johnson, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Tom Robbins, and Jon Krakauer.

As a UNESCO City of Literature, Seattle joins an international network that strives to increase conversation and collaboration between artists and thinkers across the world. The City of Literature group is itself part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, a collection of 116 cities from 54 countries, and spanning seven creative fields: Crafts & Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Music, and Media Arts. The network “promotes socio-economic and cultural tourism in the developed and developing world through creative industries.” In short, Seattle is now an official heavy-hitter in the world-wide arts community.

Seattle’s designation did not come easily. The process began in 2013, and many groups have worked to achieve this status. Chief among them: Seattle City of Literature, a non-profit whose goal is to generate public and private literary partnerships in and outside Seattle to promote a robust creative economy.

So what does being a City of Literature mean? It means good things for writers and readers. Local authors will get increased international visibility. City representatives will be invited to UNESCO’s annual Creative City Summit. There will be more support and recognition for literary education programs and workshops.

“We all know that Seattle is a world-class city,” said Bob Redmond, president of Seattle City of Literature, “but this underlines it in a new way — especially for people who care about the arts, or books, or words. It matters to everybody here that the world is looking at Seattle as a cultural leader. That should make us feel good.”

Seattle earned this new designation by meeting a number of criteria:

  • Quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city
  • Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels
  • Literature, drama and/or poetry playing an important role in the city
  • Hosting literary events and festivals that promote domestic and foreign literature
  • Existence of libraries, bookstores, and public or private cultural centres that preserve, promote, and disseminate domestic and foreign literature
  • Involvement by the publishing sector in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature
  • Active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.

Seattle met these handily. We’re the top city in the United States for arts organizations per capita, and when measured by number, we’re #4 in the country—despite being far from one of country’s largest cities. Greater Seattle’s 325 nonprofit arts organizations generated more than $207 million in revenues in 2012, and as of 2012, nearly 31,000 people (or 3.5 percent of the population) worked in that sector.

We’re an official UNESCO City of Literature now, and I, for one, am feeling inspired to pick up a book and do some reading myself. Any suggestions? Leave a comment!