Iowa City grows after 10 years as City of Literature

In its 10th year as a City of Literature, Iowa City continues to be a hub for literary lovers.


Katina Zentz

Two students read books in the Dey House on Tuesday, November 27, 2018. Iowa City is celebrating 10 years of being named UNESCO City of Literature.

Kinsey Phipps, News Reporter

Iowa City was designated the world’s third City of Literature by the UNESCO on Nov. 20, 2008. It has been a decade of recognizing, learning, writing, listening, and appreciating literature here in the heart of the U.S. 

The UNESCO Creative Cities Network was established in 2004, hoping to increase cooperation among cities who feel that creativity is essential to city growth and development. Crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music are all creative titles awarded to cities dedicated to their craft. 

Edinburgh, Scotland, was the first City of Literature in 2004. Four years later, a group with members of the International Writing Program, Iowa City, the Iowa City Public Library, and the University of Iowa came together to build an application for UNESCO. The town was designated as the third City of Literature a couple weeks behind Melbourne, Australia, local City of Literature Executive Director John Kenyon said.

Just months after the floods of 2008, Iowa City received the City of Literature designation. Rachael Carlson, Iowa City UNESCO director of operations, said this was a bright light in a dark time for the community, because so much of the Arts Campus was lost. 

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“You can’t tell the story without talking about the flood,” she said. “The arts community responded to the flood and has flourished since.” 

After the designation, Kenyon said, every literary aspect of the city grew. The Iowa City Book Festival and the Mission Creek Festival get larger every year, drawing in more artists, writers, and art connoisseurs. Along with New York City and Los Angeles, authors have Iowa City on their tour list when promoting new work, Kenyon said.

“Iowa City was a City of Literature long before the UNESCO designation,” Kenyon said.

With the famous IWP, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Prairie Lights,  numerous libraries, and the heavy arts scene, Iowa City has always been a hub for lovers of literature, Kenyon said.

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The 28 Cities of Literature around the globe learn from each other, implementing innovative practices. One Book Two Book, Iowa City’s children’s book festival, will implement Manchester’s idea in 2019, accepting writing submissions for contest in the native language of the child. Iowa City is accepting submissions in English, French, and Spanish with the goal to expand more each year, Carlson said. 

The UI is home to more than 30,000 students, living and learning in a City of Literature.   

“One of the reasons I chose the University of Iowa was the fact that it was a City of Literature and its creative-writing program is so esteemed,” first-year UI student Ashley Vannoy said. “I didn’t even know all the things that go along with being a City of Literature until I got here, and so now I’m so excited and ready to further my writing.”

The U.S. government is planning to leave UNESCO as a member, Kenyon said, but that will not affect Iowa City’s designation. 

“In the next 10 years, I see a lot of fruits of our labors in terms of collaborative efforts among cities around the world,” he said. “We learn from the best cities around the world and teach them what we’re doing. [Being a City of Literature] is not only a celebratory thing, it’s a membership to a network.”