Keeping Up With...Visual Literacy

KUW Visual Literacy

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Nicole E. Brown, Kaila Bussert, Denise Hattwig, and Ann Medaille.

Nicole E. Brown is Multidisciplinary Instruction Librarian at New York University, email:; Kaila Bussert is Visual Resources Outreach Librarian at Cornell University, email:; Denise Hattwig is Curator of Image Collections at UW Bothell Library, University of Washington Libraries, email:; and Ann Medaille is Assessment Librarian at the University of Nevada, Reno, email:  

What Is Visual Literacy?

Visual literacy is a “set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media.”[1] Visual literacy is an interdisciplinary concept and plays an important role across higher education – in the arts, humanities, science, technology, business, and more. Twenty-first century college students are expected to use and critique images in their academic work, and to produce visual materials that effectively communicate their research and scholarly activities. Visual literacy competence is essential for successful participation in this media-rich academic environment.

Visual Literacy Must Be Taught and Learned

Visual media is ubiquitous in contemporary society, and increased access to digital technology means increased access to images. But visual literacy does not arise from sheer exposure to visual content. Students’ ability to take photos, find images, and post visual content to online spaces does not automatically translate into the ability to critically engage with, make meaning from, and communicate with visual materials in an academic context.  Images differ from texts in unique ways, and working with them effectively requires deliberate learning and practice.[2] Students need opportunities to work thoughtfully with visual content so that they can learn to interpret, analyze, evaluate, and use images reflectively and ethically.

ACRL’s Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education include over 100 learning outcomes for crucial skills related to design and technology, such as situating interpretations of images within cultural, social, and historical contexts; communicating with and about images; and using technologies to create and work with images. These learning outcomes are specific and tailored to visual materials. They can be used independently as the core outcome for an activity or assignment, or incorporated into larger student projects. Articulating visual literacy learning outcomes within assignments gives focus to visual literacy development efforts and provides a basis for assessing student visual literacy learning.

Figure 1: Visual Literacy Array based on ACRL’s Visual Literacy Standards by D. Hattwig, K. Bussert, and A. Medaille. Copyright 2013 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This image first appeared in PORTAL: LIBRARIES AND THE ACADEMY, Volume 13, Issue 1, January 2013, p. 75.

Figure 1: Visual Literacy Array based on ACRL’s Visual Literacy Standards by D. Hattwig, K. Bussert, and A. Medaille. Copyright 2013 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This image first appeared in PORTAL: LIBRARIES AND THE ACADEMY, Volume 13, Issue 1, January 2013, p. 75.

Visual Literacy Complements Information Literacy

Visual literacy and information literacy share many elements and are closely aligned. Images function as informational items, and text and image frequently co-exist in the same space. Finding, accessing, and organizing images requires some of the same skills that are used with other types of information sources, and the use, creation, and sharing of images raises some of the same ethical and legal considerations that occur with text-based information.

However, the unique characteristics of visual materials require that visual literacy moves beyond image-as-information and addresses the specific skills needed to engage with images on multiple levels. Visual literacy encourages careful observation, awareness of aesthetics and their effect on meaning, visualization of concepts and data, contextualized visual interpretation, and experimentation with tools and technologies to design and create new media. As students practice these image-specific skills in their academic work, their visual literacy will grow and develop.

Librarians Can Strengthen and Promote Visual Literacy

ACRL’s Visual Literacy Standards highlight the academic library’s role in visual literacy, and librarians are well-poised within the academy to take a leadership role in this area. In academic libraries, image resources are commonplace: libraries subscribe to image databases, build original digital image collections from special collections materials, and develop image collections for instructional purposes. Librarians and curators routinely teach patrons to use these and other online image collections.

Librarians also have the opportunity to integrate visual resources and visual literacy learning outcomes into existing information literacy instruction. The Visual Literacy Standards are a flexible teaching and learning tool that, when used in conjunction with familiar information literacy concepts, empower librarians to creatively incorporate image-based critical thinking and visual communication into assignments, the classroom, and existing instructional environments. Images can engage students, demystify the research process, and lend richness to research contexts. Reference work, consultations, and faculty outreach all provide opportunities for integrating visual literacy into the curriculum and the student learning experience. Incorporating work with visual materials into professional practice increases fluency in the language of images and positions librarians to play a key role in contributing to visual literacy across the disciplines.

Next Steps for Academic Libraries

In order to implement visual literacy in a meaningful way, librarians must acquire the tools and confidence to engage with visual literacy skills and concepts. Incorporating visual literacy into information literacy instruction and everyday patron interactions is a simple way to get started. The Visual Literacy Standards support such work. Collaborations and partnerships with fellow academic professionals such as curators and technologists can help move this work forward. Professional development, easy-to-access learning opportunities, and ongoing practice can enhance librarian preparedness. There is a need for more visual literacy research, case studies, and sharing of expertise both within the profession and across higher education.


1.  The Association of College and Research Libraries. ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. (ACRL, 2011).

2.  Little, Deandra, Peter Felten, and Chad Berry. "Liberal Education in a Visual World." Liberal Education 96, no. 2 (2010): 44-49.

Learn More About Visual Literacy

Standards, Guidelines, and Best Practices

ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education:

ARL SPEC Kit 335: Digital Image Collections and Services:

VRA Advocating for Visual Resources Management:

VRA Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study:

Recommended Articles

Beatty, Nicole. "Cognitive Visual Literacy: From Theories and Competencies to Pedagogy." Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America 32, no. 1 (April 2013): 33-42.

Hattwig, Denise, Kaila Bussert, Ann Medaille, and Joanna Burgess. "Visual Literacy Standards in Higher Education: New Opportunities for Libraries and Student Learning." portal: Libraries and the Academy 13, no. 1 (2013): 61-89.

Little, Deandra, Peter Felten, and Chad Berry. "Liberal Education in a Visual World." Liberal Education 96, no. 2 (2010): 44-49.

Rybin, Amanda. "Beyond Habit and Convention: Visual Literacy and the VRC." Public Services Quarterly 8.3 (2012): 271-276.

Higher Education Visual Literacy Programs and Guides   

Arcadia University:

Carleton College, Visualizing the Liberal Arts:

Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art:

University of California, Irvine, UCI Libraries:

University of Maryland College Park:

University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library:

Associations and Groups

ACRL Image Resources Interest Group:

Art Libraries Society of North America:

Visual Resources Association: