World Book Capital

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You may have noticed the above picture appearing recently in our sidebar. So I thought I’d devote some time to explaining what it is. It’s in support of Oxford’s bid to become World Book Capital in 2014, which I’m delighted to support at eight cuts. Now that may seem a little odd. After all, we don’t really do geographical space. And are things about Oxford we’re outspoken critics of – and we’ll remain firm in our criticism where necessary, holding the Not the Oxford Literary Festival, raising collective eyebrows about the University’s Professor of Poetry position. But the people behind this bid have won me over with their openness and breadth of enthusiasm as well as their energy. And Oxford has been such a welcoming, warm home to so much we’ve done. And never have I come across such diversity of culture.

So I’m delighted to be joined by the team behind the bid, talking about what it means to be World Book Capital, and what Oxford’s bid entails. I hope it’ll help raise awareness and encourage people to get involved. We will be doing plenty here.

OK, World Book Capital. What’s that about? What does it mean? And for an eight cuts readership that’s slightly wary of the word “books”, does it really refer to the printed pages with covers on, or does it encompass everything to do with the word?

The World Book Capital City is a year-long UNESCO award granted to one city each year around the world. The award has been going since 2001 and the current WBC is Buenos Aires. UNESCO acknowledges the best year-long programme proposed by a city to promote books and foster reading. This means the award isn’t just fun – it’s about creating something substantial and lasting within the city that will help future generations learn and understand the importance of books and the importance of words as a means of recording, inspiring and expressing.

There’s no reason to be wary of the word ‘book’. I think books are changing shape every day. Instead of calling it the World Word Capital, UNESCO focuses on books. But what are books? They’re dressed up and packaged ideas. That’s what the WBC is about. We want to create a programme that will reach out to everyone in Oxford: from the tourists interested in Oxford’s literary history to the writers challenging themselves in writing groups to the poets and their poetry slams, the researchers sitting in the Bodelain for days, the students with their ambitions and the children who will be doing those exact things in the future.


Why Oxford?

Why Oxford? Well, for centuries, Oxfordshire’s authors have provided people of all ages around the world with timeless tales of pride, passion and adventure. Just walk down to the Eagle and Child pub for a quick pint where the Inklings (including JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis) met for literary discussion. Wander through the Botanical Gardens and the Pitt Rivers Museum, two sites Phillip Pullman focused on in His Dark Materials. Or just walk up and down High Street and Cornmarket and the back alleys of Oxford’s University centre to see Magdalen College where Oscar Wilde studied and Balliol College where Aldous Huxley wrote about Oxford life. The city is full of legends.

Now if that’s too touristy for you, then you’ve got great poetry slams by Hammer & Tongue and local authors publishing their own books (ahem, Dan…). You’ve got more than 40 publishers based around the city and unparalleled resources already in place to support a year-long programme of this kind. I can’t think of any reason Oxford shouldn’t be the World Book Capital City. Oxford has a strong literary base supporting the future of digital, spoken and printed works in publishing.


What would it mean to Oxford for it to be World Book Capital? I mean specifically? In particular I think the worries of our readers would be along the lines of “what makes Oxford such a special place is that verbal culture takes place on so many levels, but this is just going to means more publicity for Lewis Carroll, Duke Humfrey and Morse Walking Tours, isn’t it?” If Oxford is successful, will the diversity that makes it great be reflected in the outcome?

There is the danger that people perceive Oxford’s bid as a pitch for more tourists and, yes, walking tours, but that’s absolutely not the case. That’s almost as bad as the Sunday Times Literary Festival being equated as a subset of Oxford University (read: closed to outsiders of the literary elite). We don’t want to focus on the tourists – we want to focus on Oxford’s culture and rich literary history while looking to the future the entire time. Oxford’s publishing industry is tightly bound to its past, but is open to the future.

The way we want to shape this programme is by receiving input from all residents of Oxfordshire. Just a couple of months ago, we had a brainstorming session with librarians and reading groups from all over the city. We’re reaching out to the more than 40 publishing houses in Oxford. We’re speaking to poets and writers and blogger. The WBC isn’t meant to isolate residents and drive revenue. We want to know what your ideas are and if you’d be interested in running a project that would celebrate the written and spoken word. This really is a programme for the whole city – so if you’re tired of the walking tours, send us your ideas! Maybe they’ll become an annual staple on the publishing calendar.


How is the World Book Capital result decided?

Oxford’s bid is for the year from April 2014 to April 2015, but the winner of this bid will be announced in 2012. The International Publishers Association, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and the International Booksellers Federation all participate in the award selection, which has no financial prize.


The main criteria for nomination include:

  • partnerships throughout the city
  • the programme’s potential impact
  • professional input and involvement of writers, publishers, booksellers and libraries educational aspects of reading promotion
  • cultural diversity
  • the extent to which the programme respects the principles of freedom of expression, as stated by the UNESCO Constitution as well as by Articles 19 and 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by the Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials


The team behind the Oxford WBC bid is made up of people working for a variety of publishing-related organizations in Oxford: Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford University Press, Blackwell’s, The Bodleian Library, The Story Museum and the Arts Council. The bid is also being organized by local cultural organization Oxford Inspires.


What can people do? If someone’s holding an event, how can they use it to support the bid? If they’re not already doing something, what can they do?

If you’re holding any kind of event related to publishing (book launch, poetry slam/reading, bookclub, theatre events, writing workshops, etc) then please email me at I’d love to help promote the great events happening around Oxford and maybe you can help promote Oxford as the 2014 World Book Capital too.


Also, if you’ve got an idea for the bid itself, send me an email. We’re happy to take suggestions! Just remember the bid document is due to UNESCO by June of next year, so get your ideas in soon and we’ll see what we can do.


Now go tell your friends! Follow us on Facebook , Twitter  or WordPress . If you want to write a guest blog, you can do that too. I’d love to have other voices sharing their opinions on our website. This is a community-driven award after all.

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