At Sharjah: A UNESCO World Book Capital Network Meeting

In News by Porter Anderson

Delegates from 16 of UNESCO’s World Book Capitals convened in Sharjah to explore the WBC network and what it can offer.

Representatives of UNESCO and of at least 16 World Book Capital programs convene on November 3 at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom for preliminary talks on the legacy of these cities’ programs and the potentials of their network. Image: Sharjah WBC, Nabs Ahmedi

The Legacy and Potential of Each UNESCO World Book Capital
As we get closer to the end of the autumn rush of world publishing gatherings—many of them happening in person amid a still-ongoing pandemic—there are several events that have deserved coverage but couldn’t be reported as they happened because of the crush on the calendar.

One of the most potentially worthy such moments occurred on November 3, when UNESCO publishing and branding chief Ian Denison few into the United Arab Emirates for a preliminary meeting at Sharjah with representatives of most of the World Book Capital cities. Called the Expert Group of the World Book Capital Cities Network, the day’s group of colleagues was hosted by Sharjah World Book Capital (2019)  at the soaring new House of Wisdom during the Sharjah International Book Fair.

While live press coverage was declined by UNESCO, some of us had a chance in Sharjah to meet with some of the participants of the meeting, particularly those familiar to Publishing Perspectives, including Nino Matcharashvili of Tbilisi (2021) and Anna Routsi of Athens (2018).

Travsin Jittidecharak of Bangkok

At Sharjah’s invitation, the representatives of 16 World Book Capital programs convened at House of Wisdom. That group included Guadalajara, which has been named to follow Tbilisi as the 2022 World Book Capital. The Guadalajara International Book Fair opens Saturday (November 27) to run through December 5.

The World Book Capital program’s concept itself is only some 22 years old, having been launched in 1996 at the suggestion of the International Publishers Association (IPA), of which Sharjah’s Bodour Al Qasimi now is president. In 2001, Madrid became the first city to call itself a World Book Capital.

The purpose of the meeting in Sharjah was, in fact, to talk preliminarily about how to pull together the energies of those 20 years between Madrid’s inauguration of the sequence and now so that–instead of a city holding the honor for a year of hard work and then breaking away—a new continuity of the program’s grace might be captured and promoted into ongoing progress, power, and purpose.

The interest here, in other words, is capturing legacy. What does a World Book Capital’s focus mean, to its own market, to its region’s markets, to the world marketplace? An example of network-based action was seen in Sharjah’s own World Book Capital offices when the August 4, 2020, blast in Port Beirut severely damaged many assets and infrastructure of the literary life of Lebanon’s capital which was, itself, a World Book Capital city in 2009.

Denison: ‘Solidarity With Other Cities’

UNESCO’s Ian Denison, center, at the November 4 meeting of World Book Capital cities. IPA’s Bodour Al Qasimi is on the left. Luke Alcott of the International Authors Forum is on the right. Image: Sharjah WBC, Nabs Ahmedi

Denison, in introducing the day, said, “Strong motivation exists amongst the World Book Capital cities to show solidarity with other cities wishing to rise to the challenge of becoming a UNESCO-designated city.

Nino Matcharashvili of Tbilisi

Cooperation within the new network will help provide other cities with access to sources of knowledge and best practices.”

Discussions centered on the network’s mission and strategic objectives—to strengthen cooperation and develop knowledge-sharing and good practices among members of the network, as well as strengthening the cities’ commitment to promoting books and reading particularly in the wake of the global pandemic, which has had a complex and often uneven level of impact on world publishing.

This network, alongside that of the Cities for Literature (part of the Creative Cities Network, to which Jakarta and 48 other hubs were just added) highlights UNESCO’s commitment to authors’ creativity, books, and reading.

Delegates to the World Book Capital preliminary network meeting in debate at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom on November 3. From left are Luke Alcott, International Authors Forum; Sridhar Balan of New Delhi; Trasvin Jittidecharak of Bangkok; and Sheikh Faisal of Kuala Lumpur. Image: WBC Sharjah, Nabs Ahmedi

Welcoming the guests, Al Qasimi, pointed out that Sharjah’s 2019 title had not only reinforced the emirate’s status as a regional cultural hub, but had also positively influenced the development of its book industry and reading culture.

Eric Yang of Incheon

Al Qasimi added that the power and beauty of being a World Book Capital city is that such positive benefits last for years to come and offer a chance to reinforce social cohesion through books, and promote cultural dialogue. Al Qasimi called on all previous World Book Capital cities to collaborate and stay connected to improve the impact of this prestigious title, enhancing the positive benefits it brings to the industry.

“A strong network that builds on the momentum of the WBC honor,” Al Qasimi told the delegates at House of Wisdom, “will benefit cities and future generations through the exchange of ideas on the legacy of the title.”

The House of Wisdom, its library holdings and services centered around a soaring atrium, created an airy walk-through display of the literary personalities of the 22 World Book Capital cities, with a “cloud of pages” in different languages and illustrations specific to each of the World Book Capital programs–all displayed on warm-wood latticed framework of screens so that the viewer could focus on one point or take in the full range at once.

And the IPA welcomed delegates to the World Book Capital networking event to its 125th-anniversary celebration at House of Wisdom on the evening of November 3.

Part of the World Book Capitals installation at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom, November 3. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

UNESCO World Book Capital Cities

Since 2001, the UNESCO World Book Capital’s advisory panel—comprising representatives from the International Authors Forum, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the International Publishers Association, and UNESCO—has been selecting a World Book Capital every year.

Jemina Soria of Buenos Aires

The title is awarded to a city deemed to show continued excellence in charting a cultural program of activities throughout the year to promote reading and books focusing on grassroots community involvement.

  • Madrid (Spain) 2001
  • Antwerp (Belgium) for 2004
  • Montreal (Canada) for 2005
  • Turin (Italy) for 2006
  • Bogota (Colombia) for 2007
  • Amsterdam (The 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) in 2014
  • Incheon (Republic of Korea) in 2015
  • Wroclaw (Poland) in 2016
  • Conakry (Republic of Guinea) in 2017
  • Athens (Greece) in 2018
  • Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) in 2019
  • Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 2020
  • Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2021
  • Guadalajara (Mexico) in 2022
  • Accra (Ghana) 2023, just named by UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay in Paris in September

At the IPA 125th-anniversary reception with the World Book Capital cities networking delegates at Sharjah’s House of Wisdom. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on UNESCO’s World Book Capital program is here, and more on the International Publishers Association is here. More on Sharjah Book Authority is here, more on Sharjah International Book Fair is here, and more on publishing’s trade shows, book fairs, and festivals is here. More on Sharjah’s House of Wisdom is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the media partner for the International Publishers Association.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.