The city of Strasbourg, with its rich history and cultural heritage, has been recognised as UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2024.
“We’re putting together a series of initiatives that will create habits around books and encourage people to use them as supports of thought, debate, curiosity and respect for others,” says Anne Mistler, Deputy Mayor in charge of Arts and Culture in Strasbourg.
Together with Anne-Marie Bock, the World Book Capital Project Manager, she delves deeper into this honour and the city’s commitment to literature.
Cities recognised as UNESCO World Book Capitals commit to conducting various activities to foster a culture of reading and to harness the power of books to foster more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable societies.
Strasbourg and books
The city’s history is full of symbols of its relationship with writing, books and thought. For example, in 1605, reporters from several central European towns wrote weekly on the first modern newspaper. While the destruction of most of the public library collection during a bombing in World War II has left a deep scar in the local community’s mind.
“Strasbourg has had a relationship with books, debate and the exchange of ideas for centuries,” says Mistler. “Ours is a city of readers.” In this spirit, anchored in centuries-long heritage but projected towards the future, Strasbourg will interpret its role as World Book Capital.
Books are part of people’s everyday life
The city will officially be the World Book Capital in April 2024, yet the adventure is well underway. The initiatives that will animate Strasbourg for a year result from several consultations with local stakeholders and residents. “At the beginning, we had 360 ideas. The difficult part was selecting which ones to do because we couldn’t do them all,” recounts Mistler.
From seasoned activities that have been successful for years, like the ‘ideal libraries’ that bring together authors and locals to discuss a contemporary issue. To brand new concepts, such as the ‘takeaway reading’ where employees can find books at their company to bring home, including books for their children.
“We wanted to strike a balance between offering more institutionalised events and actions that would be part of people’s everyday lives. The aim is for everyone, wherever they are and whatever their age, to be involved in the issue of books, writing and reading,” explains Mistler. “It was important for us to reach out to people where they live, including refugee centres,” adds Bock.
Values in books and through books
Strasbourg’s programme is rooted in a few fundamental pillars, carefully crafted in cooperation with local stakeholders and residents. The city, wearing its European Capital hat, sets the stage for dynamic conversations, placing human rights, politics, and environmental concerns at the forefront.
Strasbourg is committed to exploring complex subjects, such as narratives of exile and how they connect to the right to culture or the links between culture and the environment. Strasbourg is taking a magnifying glass to the literary world, from thinking about sustainability to the ethical considerations of unsold editions and paper use.
The city’s drive to promote literary and cultural education, especially among youth, is palpable. From traditional books to the digital realm, Strasbourg ensures that every individual engages deeply with reading and writing.
Behind the scenes: everyone
Strasbourg’s engagement is a massive effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the network it mobilised. “Even UNESCO remarked on the collective energy of this project,” says Bock. Libraries, bookshops, schools, museums, the national book industry, library unions, residents, local associations, artists, universities, “it’s a network of hundreds of stakeholders, from the neighbourhood to the national level, everyone joined the city in taking this challenge,” says Bock.
This infectious enthusiasm spread to the city administration, where different departments have worked together on the application as World Book Capital. The success can be traced back to the “external network of partners, but also the strength of 7,000 municipal agents working together,” says Bock proudly.
The creative force of such a rich community working together is one element of Strasbourg’s achievement, the other being the political will and motivation to get involved in such a big project. “We had a positive conjunction between the political goals and the capacity to mobilise this variety of actors quickly,” stresses Bock.
What will remain?
Strasbourg is the first French city to get the UNESCO label of World Book Capital. The appointment is a privilege, yet it comes with its cost in terms of human resources and finances. The city has funded most of the project, with contributions from the region, the Department Council, the European Collectivity of Alsace, and a few private sponsors.
So, is it worth it? “Our mission is to leave no space in Strasbourg untouched by the World Book Capital year. Each intervention is adapted and can be implemented either by the city’s departments, our local partners, or residents themselves,” explains Mistler. “What will remain is the network of stakeholders. After this experience, institutional partners, associations and locals will continue working together on actions in their buildings, parks or at work,” completes Bock.
While the city is getting ready to showcase its programme, the application for World Book Capital 2025 is open. Strasbourg hopes to inspire others to apply so that the book can continue to be a tool for insightful debates and better understanding between people.
*Thumbnail photo credits: Philippe Strinwise pour Strasbourg Eurometropole