Dunedin became a UNESCO City of Literature in December 2014, along with Granada, Heidelberg and Prague. Although it is only the seventh-largest city in New Zealand in terms of population, it is one of the nation’s leading cultural centres. Many influential writers have called Dunedin home. The poet Thomas Bracken, who wrote New Zealand’s national anthem “God Defend New Zealand,” lived and died there. Charles Brasch, who founded Landfall, New Zealand’s most important literary journal; Nobel Prize-nominated poet and novelist Janet Frame; and playwrights James K. Baxter and Roger Hall were associated with the city. The nephew of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns was one of Dunedin’s founders; because of this fact and the strong literary influence of Scottish immigrants to New Zealand, his statue has a prominent place in the city. David Elliot and Tania Roxborogh, prominent writers and illustrators of children’s literature, live in Dunedin. Although European influences are most strongly felt on New Zealand’s literature, contemporary literature also reflects the country’s Maori and Pacific heritage. Other aspects of cultural life are vibrant in Dunedin.
The city features many theatres, of which perhaps the Globe Theatre is most influential, and dance studios. The city has many jazz and classical groups, and Dunedin Sound became one of the most popular cult strands of alternative music in the 1980s. Starting in the 19th century, when Dunedin publishers such as Coulls Somerville Wilkie, A.H. & A.W. Reed and John McIndoe dominated New Zealand’s publishing scene, the city has been an important centre of the publishing industry in Oceania. Otago Daily Times, New Zealand’s oldest daily, is published there. Prominent publishing houses in the city include: Kekeno Independent Press, which promotes non-fiction, short stories and educational texts; Lifelogs, which focuses on cycling, children’s literature and local history; and Otago University Press, which is New Zealand’s oldest academic publisher and specialises in non-fiction books about the country.
Evidence that libraries are alive and well in Dunedin is attested to by the fact that the city has only 120,000 inhabitants, yet the Dunedin Public Library – New Zealand’s oldest – receives over one million visits each year. It is truly one of the leading centres of cultural life in the city. It works closely with other cultural institutions to host many meetings with authors, writing workshops and book launches. The Dunedin Public Library is also home to the Reed Collection, a world-famous collection of rare books. Prominent academic libraries include the University of Otago Library and the Hewitson Library at Knox College. Hocken features many collections related to the cultures indigenous to Australasia. Finally, the Dunedin Chinese Garden is the only authentic Chinese Scholar’s Garden in the Southern Hemisphere, and it features a wealth of books about Chinese culture in both English and Mandarin.
Similarly, bookstores are a prominent feature of Dunedin’s cultural life. The University Book Shop features a large collection of books, as well as “a feast of quirky gifts.” Paper Plus in the Golden Centre Mall sells many New Zealand-related books. In 2013, Hard to Find (But Worth the Effort) Quality Secondhand Bookshop, which offers 250,000 books, relocated from Auckland to Dunedin. Meanwhile, Octagon Books, a small used book store, has been voted one of the 10 best in the world by the Irish Independent News. Those seeking literary education need look no further than Dunedin. The Robert Burns Fellowship is New Zealand’s leading literary fellowship. The Centre for the Book at the University of Otago educates students in print culture and the history of the book, and its staff has authored the Definitive History of the Book in New Zealand. The university features many fellowship and residency programmes for writers, and it is also the world’s first university to offer a residency programme for the writers of children’s books. The former home of writer John Caselberg and his wife is now a residence for visiting writers. The Creative Writing Otago programme offers both online and face-to-face trainings in creative writing.
Dunedin’s new literary event is the New Zealand Young Writer’s Festival, which was organised for the first time in 2015. It not only features young writers, but young writers are also its organisers. Other literary events of note that take place in Dunedin include: New Zealand Poetry Day and New Zealand Book Month. The Children’s Storylines Festival is a leading event dedicated to children’s and youth literature. Furthermore, Dunedin is home to many literary prizes. The Caselberg International Poetry Prize publishes its laureates in Landfall, a leading New Zealand literary magazine. The Janet Frame Literary Trust gives annual awards to writers, poets and literary organisations from New Zealand who benefit the country. The New Zealand Post Book Awards are also handed out in Dunedin. The Robbie Burns Poetry Competition gives awards to young readers between 5 and 17 years of age. The Athenaeum Essay Competition, New Zealand’s oldest, is aimed at high school students. Dunedin is a city that takes public literacy seriously. Two book buses visit many areas of the city. Meanwhile, Dunedin Public Libraries feature many campaigns aimed at boosting readership. As mentioned above, 40,000 of the city’s 120,000 inhabitants take advantage of the library system’s many initiatives. The Regent Theatre offers an annual book sale of donated books, making readership more accessible to Dunedin residents of all economic backgrounds. The Books for Babies programme donates books to new mothers, emphasising the importance of reading to infants. The New Zealand Book Council’s Writers in Schools programme sends Kiwi writers to schools to encourage young readers.