Reading from the Same Page
Professor Andrew Cowan from the University of East Anglia on his visit to Ljubljana UNESCO City of Literature

Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia and, like Norwich, a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ll admit I had to Google both Ljubljana and Slovenia to fix them on my mental map, though it probably wasn’t such a good idea to admit this to Mateja Demšič, the Head of the Department of Culture at Ljubljana’s city council. She winced.

But then Slovenia is a fairly new nation, most recently the northernmost part of Yugoslavia, and before that incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian empire, with complicated periods of occupation and subdivision during and after the world wars. It seceded from Yugoslavia by massive popular vote in 1990, and joined the European Union in 2004. I learned all this from Wikipedia, and while Slovenian identity goes back centuries, Mateja and others stressed the importance of literature in creating a sense of national identity. Slovenia, the writer Andrej Blatnik told me, is a nation that came out of the spirit of poetry. For Mateja, the poetry is a matter of public policy.

If Norwich’s claim to be a City of Literature is based mainly on the writing to have come from here, Ljubljana’s is based mainly on the reading that goes on there.

They are a dynamic group: a small office doing huge amounts.

It’s a city founded on public libraries. There are 36 of them, serving a population of just 280,000. And the habit of reading is encouraged more or less from birth. The Ljubljana Reads scheme means that each new Ljubljanian is presented with a book on his or her first visit to a paediatrician. Another book is gifted on every child’s first day at primary school, and again when they enter second grade. The city foots the bill. Meanwhile, every schoolchild joins the venerable Reading Badge scheme – it’s now 60 years old – for which there are reading lists, reading bees, competitions, and, it seems, lasting social shame for non-participation.

In addition to the bricks-and-mortar libraries, there are also pop-up libraries in the city’s parks. Fourteen years ago, Tina Popovič invented the Library Under the Treetops scheme, which has seen bookshelves and deckchairs appearing in the city’s green spaces every summer since. Tina is now also the organizer of Ljubljana’s Office of the City of Literature, supported by Damjan Zorc and Nika Kovač. Besides being as charming as the Library Under the Treetops idea, they are a dynamic group: a small office doing huge amounts.

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