Seattle, regularly a contender for the title of most literate city in the United States by Central Connecticut State University’s annual ranking, is doubling down on its reputation as a book-loving burg. This March, the city submitted its application for designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, a bid that would make Seattle the second city in the United States and the eighth city in the world to receive the title.
Local author Ryan Boudinot spearheaded the initiative, which has the support of the city’s academic institutions, independent booksellers, publishers, writers, elected officials, and the Seattle Public Library, to make the case that Seattle’s robust literary arts community is worthy of recognition. Representatives from these areas hosted a community meeting at Town Hall Seattle on March 12 to discuss the application, where Chris Higashi of the Washington Center for the Book spoke on behalf of the Seattle Public Library (SPL).
SPL programming forms one of the cornerstones of the city’s try for UNESCO recognition. The internationally adopted One City One Book citywide reading program began at SPL in 1998, and more than 350,000 people attended over 8,000 public programs offered by the library in 2013.
The application detailed four initiatives that Seattle would put in place upon being named a City of Literature, which would see varying degrees of involvement from SPL. The first is development of a multi-use literary arts center housing a variety of organizations, writers-in-residence, performances, and workshops. Nancy Pearl, Seattle’s famous former librarian, author, and host of Book Lust has been tapped to coordinate an international writer’s exchange program, fostering communications and relationships between writers in Seattle and across the globe. Boudinot will work with local publisher Sasquatch Books to edit Seattle: City of Literature, a comprehensive overview of Seattle’s literary past, present, and potential future. Finally, the position of Seattle Poet Populist, an elected position in the city for several years, would return, with the aims of emphasizing the poet’s role as a literary ambassador and spokesperson for literacy issues.
Seattle Public Library’s Chance Hunt, Assistant Director, Community Partnerships & Government Relations, said receiving the UNESCO City of Literature of designation would offer chances to broaden the city’s relationships in the literary community, to expand programming, and to deepen engagement with readers and writers.
“This is a renewed opportunity to creatively innovate and expand,” Hunt told Library Journal. “The process has led to a groundswell of understanding and recognition of our resources.”
SPL plans to support these four initiatives through events and programs like hosting authors, arranging reading groups, and putting together workshops for readers, said Hunt, adding that “this would be an opportunity for us to expand everything that we already do.” The Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the application, which was signed by Mayor Ed Murray.
At the town hall meeting where the application was discussed, Higashi also took time to recognize the 10-year anniversary of Seattle’s Central Library. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the building is an architectural icon in the city, as well as the crown jewel (and largest outlet) of a 26-branch library system that has seen continued support from citizens, expanding even during tough economic times. In 1998, voters passed a $196.4 million library bond, the largest library funding initiative in US history. A subsequent levy of $123 million in 2012 further supported the system, allowing all branches to open on Sundays.
So far, the designation of UNESCO City of Literature has been awarded to seven cities worldwide; Edinburgh, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia; Dublin, Ireland; Reykavik, Iceland; Norwich, England; and Krakow, Poland. In the United States, Iowa City, IA, is the only City of Literature, receiving the honor in 2008. The City of Literature designation is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities program, awarded in music, film, media, gastronomy, crafts and folk art, and design. Applicants will learn the fate of their bids in November 2014.