City of Literature - Enhancing a global hub for great writing

When Jeanette Pilak was growing up in Wisconsin, she dreamed of coming to Iowa City to join the renowned Writers' Workshop at The University of Iowa. Last year, that dream came true—sort of.

In April 2010, Pilak became the first executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, an organization dedicated to advancing literature and literacy, establishing international collaborations, and building on the University community’s reputation as a locus of creativity and thought. In less than a year, she has helped make Iowa City—which became the world’s third City of Literature in November 2008—a vibrant addition to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Creative Cities Network.

UNESCO launched the Creative Cities Network in October 2004 to promote the social, economic, and cultural development of cities around world by recognizing their contributions to literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, media arts, and gastronomy. The University of Iowa joined the cities of Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty, plus civic organizations and community members, in applying for the prestigious designation in 2007.

“Iowa City is known around the world for its literary tradition,” Pilak says. “When I first started, I was looking through the application files. When Christopher Merrill (director of the UI-based International Writing Program) wrote to the cultural sector at UNESCO in Paris to see if they would be interested in entertaining an application from Iowa City, they said ‘We’ve been waiting.’”

Hosting a day in the city

Pilak didn’t take long to adjust to her new job. Just a few months after she started, the second annual Iowa City Book Festival took place.

The City of Literature partners with the University of Iowa Libraries to produce and promote the mid-July festival, which closed this year with “A Day in the City of Literature.” Twenty-five downtown Iowa City businesses hosted authors to talk about and read from their books.

“We had everything from an optical shop to jewelry stores and resale shops,” Pilak says. “It allowed those retailers to realize how they connect to the City of Literature. At AKAR, we had a potter come in to talk about her book and her career. At Active Endeavors we had a young woman who wrote a book called Hiking in Iowa. This allows the businesses to market to their customers through the City of Literature in a way they might not have thought of on their own.”

The event was so popular that 25 additional businesses have expressed interest for 2011.

“We quadrupled attendance at the festival overall from year one to year two,” Pilak says. “Economically that’s a huge impact for the community, and those are the types of programs we want to continue and grow.”

Promoting literacy

The City of Literature also has teamed with the UI Department of Athletics on outreach to the Iowa City Community School District. Hawkeye Readers takes student athletes into elementary schools during off-seasons. The athletes read one-on-one to elementary students and emphasize the importance of academics.

“At one of the schools a young girl asked one of the football players how much it cost to go to college. The student said, ‘$30,000,’ and the girl said, ‘I’d rather have a car,’” Pilak recalls. “The football player got up and—at a 5th grade level—led the students through an economics exercise. He said, ‘OK, if you buy a car that’s $30,000, here’s what the monthly payments are. You need a job that pays you X. How are you going to get that kind of job if you don’t graduate from college?’ The impact that made on those children—the importance of an education—it’s such an invaluable message.”

The City of Literature is also collaborating with the Englert Theatre and Little Village, an Iowa City arts and culture magazine, to sponsor a writing contest called Hot Tin Roof. To highlight new creative work produced in and around Iowa City, Little Village publishes one short piece each month, with the writer receiving a $100 honorarium.

Drawing visual artists

The organization also reaches out to visual artists with literary interests, in partnership with public libraries in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty. Book Marks: Book Art in Johnson County is a public art project featuring larger-than-life sculptures of books created by area artists. The books will be showcased throughout Johnson County from May through October 2011.

Looking forward, the City of Literature board is focusing programming around four signature events each year:  the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day in the spring, the Iowa City Book Festival “Day in the City of Literature” in the summer, Paul Engle Memorial Day in the fall, and a Children’s Literature Festival in the winter. 

Despite all of the activity happening in and around Iowa City, Pilak emphasizes that the City of Literature designation shouldn’t be just a local source of pride. “Everyone who lives in Iowa is a citizen of the City of Literature,” she says.

Taking the community online

In fact, you don’t have to be in Iowa City to experience the City of Literature. With support from Humanities Iowa, the City of Literature launched On the Fly, a video archive of writers who present lectures and readings in the Iowa City area. Short interviews with the writers reside on the City of Literature’s YouTube channel, which also links to the organization’s web site.

“They all say the same thing: ‘I’ve never been here before but I always wanted to come,’” Pilak says. “Or ‘I’ve been here many times and I can’t wait to come back again.’ This is the place where great writing begins, so if you can’t live without writing, sooner or later you’re going to make the pilgrimage to Iowa City. But now you can also do it virtually.”

This emphasis on technology is helping Iowa City become a leader among the world’s 25 UNESCO Creative Cities. Iowa City was the first Creative City to develop an iPhone application, thanks to a group of UI faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students.

Called “City of Lit,” the app features information on Iowa City's literary history, author biographical and bibliographic information, and a map that highlights sites of interest, including where authors wrote and lived. It also features “News” and “Events” tabs that are constantly updated.

Pilak presented the application at a UNESCO forum in South Korea last fall to representatives from the 24 other Creative Cities. There was so much interest that Iowa City was asked to lead a workshop at a December conference in Shenzhen, China, to teach the other cities in the network how to develop their own smart phone apps.

Building from the ground up

Christopher Merrill, president of the City of Literature’s board of directors and director of the UI International Writing Program, says that the City of Literature is lucky to have such a strong leader in Pilak.

“As the first executive director, she has built a vibrant organization from the ground up; established strong relationships with all of the stakeholders in our literary community—academic, municipal, and commercial; helped to create our mission statement and strategic plan; and put in place exciting programming that will strengthen our literary profile for a long time to come,” Merrill says.

When she’s not working on local community projects, Pilak continues to strengthen relationships with the other Cities of Literature, which include Edinburgh, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia; and Dublin, Ireland.

Several artists and writers from Dublin visited in 2010 and have invited the Iowa City board of directors to visit them in 2011. Robin Hemley, a board member and director of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program, invited several writers from Melbourne to the 2010 NonfictioNow conference and is beginning talks with the Melbourne Writing Program to take the conference to Melbourne in 2012. Pilak also mentioned that many people have expressed interest in taking a tour of all four Cities of Literature.

“The potential of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature has barely been tapped—and yet, when you look at the list of accomplishments and projects it is very impressive,” says Susan Craig, vice president of the board and director of the Iowa City Public Library. “Jeanette is a very good fit for our community and for the City of Literature.”

Pilak says she’s looking forward to expanding Iowa City’s reputation as a City of Literature even further in the years to come.

“I love this community. Every day I get to meet amazingly creative people who have a connection to writing—seniors living in retirement homes, students putting themselves through college, the list goes on and on,” she says. “Creativity and the literary tradition are everywhere and it’s my job to promote that. I have the best job in the world.”

For more information about the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, visit

Kelli Andresen
photo by Kirk Murray

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© The University of Iowa 2009