Edinburgh wins a literary first

November 12, 2004

Edinburgh University has underpinned a successful bid by Scotland's capital to become the world's first city of literature.

Unesco, the United Nations body that aims to forge international links in education, science and culture, bestowed the title on the city within hours of receiving the bid, submitted by a team including Ian Campbell, professor of literature, and Sheila Cannell, director of library services.

Cairns Craig, professor of English literature at Edinburgh, said: "Edinburgh is and always has been a world city of literature and we are delighted to find Unesco confirming this."

Official recognition is likely to boost student recruitment, particularly from abroad. Randall Stevenson, deputy head of English literature, said: "All my American students immediately emailed their home colleges to say 'I'm studying in the world city of literature'. This makes our students more aware of where they are and the culture around them."

The department of English literature, one of the six most highly rated in the most recent research assessment exercise, is the oldest in the world.

It offered courses on "rhetoric and belles lettres " over 200 years ago, a century before Oxford or Cambridge universities.

The department is partly housed in the former home of Francis Jeffrey, judge and literary critic, who in 1802 launched the Edinburgh Review , one of the most influential journals in the English-speaking world. The Rev Sydney Smith, the writer, joked that its motto should be: "We cultivate literature on a little oatmeal."

The university has not only spawned a host of writers, from Sir Walter Scott to Ian Rankin, but is a crucial research resource. It houses the Centre for the History of the Book, and has an internationally renowned collection of books and manuscripts of Scottish authors.

The library promotes Scottish literature to a wider audience by digitising its holdings. Its projects include the Sir Walter Scott Digital Archive (www.walterscott. lib.ed.ac.uk). It is lead partner in the Britain in Print website ( http:///britaininprint.net ), which develops e-learning material.

Professor Campbell, an expert on the "Sage of Ecclefechan", Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle, is one of the editors of the Duke-Edinburgh edition of The Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle being published by Duke University Press.

James Boyle, Scotland's cultural commissioner and chairman of the city of literature project, said the university was a vital component of the bid.

"The encouragement from the principal, the vice-principal, the senior members of the English department and the university library energised our efforts and illustrated the real academic, social and civic influence of the greatest of Scotland's universities," he said.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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