Beyond the books: cultural value and the State Library of South Australia

Author: Heather Robinson

Robinson, Heather, 2020 Beyond the books: cultural value and the State Library of South Australia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The question of how to value culture has concerned the international cultural sector for decades. Despite extensive research and debate in academic and policy circles, few practical advances have been made to improve the evaluation of the contribution the sector makes at both a community and individual level. Previous studies on the public value of arts and culture identify the need to resist the application of quantitative methods and transactional terms developed for the commercial realm. These standardised modelling practices are based on economic principles that abrade and sometimes contradict the goals and services offered by the cultural sector. Cultural institutions struggle to communicate what they do in a policy environment dominated by austerity narratives and economic impact measures. They face on-going budget cuts and pressure to deliver instrumental outcomes, on top of their missions to preserve, interpret and maintain access to their collections. The problem of their public value is caught between conflicts of ideology and methodology.

This thesis takes a qualitative mixed-methods approach to identify the public value of the State Library of South Australia. Drawing on literature from arts marketing, economics and cultural value research, it forms a case study for Laboratory Adelaide, an Australian Research Council Linkage project investigating the value of culture. The thesis takes up the recommendations of Holden (2004, 2007), Radbourne et. al. (2013), Scott (2017), Walmsley (2013, 2016) and others, to focus on the perspective of the public, to identify how the value of a cultural institution is perceived and made manifest. Data was captured using open-ended surveys and semi-structured interviews, and is communicated in the public’s natural language, using narrative techniques. This is the first time a cultural value analysis has been conducted on South Australia’s oldest post-settlement cultural institution. The State Library’s history and location within the North Terrace Cultural Precinct are shown to be significant, underpinning the public’s valued relationship with the institution. As a politically neutral civic space, the State Library is shown to be a point of entry for new arrivals to Adelaide and Australia, providing language classes, community connections and cultural transfer. The importance of positive childhood experiences is shown to support how adults become life-long library users and informed citizens. The findings contribute to knowledge by highlighting the symbolic interaction between the institution and members of the public, that create transgenerational associations of value and fulfil the potential of individuals while promoting social cohesion, community identity, trust and belonging. These narratives of value provide important qualitative context to balance mandatory quantitative evaluation policy demands.

Keywords: cultural value, creative industries, State Library of South Australia, library, libraries, culture, cultural institutions, cultural policy, economic policy, arts marketing, cultural evaluation, cultural heritage, Adelaide, North Terrace, South Australia, institutional value, history, colonial history, literacy, democracy, public value, public access, community identity

Subject: Cultural Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Robert Phiddian