Visual Literacy for Librarians: Learning Skills and Promoting Best Practices

What is visual literacy? An emerging field of study in library science, visual literacy applies the same concepts of information literacy to images and other visual material. Just as information literacy standards help guide library instruction programs, so too do newly created visual literacy standards guide librarians in helping patrons find, evaluate, and appropriately use images in their scholarly or personal work.

Why is visual literacy important? Is it the responsibility of the librarian to teach visual literacy? Visual literacy is becoming increasingly critical, as modes of communication are increasingly visual and image-based. One pop-culture example of this is the increasing popularity of the social media platform Instagram, which is a primarily photo and image based network featuring very minimal text. However, many people do not have the skills necessary to fully participate in a visual environment; where will they learn these skills?

Librarians are uniquely equipped to teach visual literacy skills, since both it and information literacy share the same central philosophy, which is the importance of critical thinking and evaluation. By learning visual literacy skills themselves, librarians will be able to share these skills with patrons, students, and colleagues, in addition to applying the skills to promotional and marketing materials the library produces, promoting best practices.

Finding Images

The first skill required in visual literacy is the ability to find images. Although scholarship has primarily relied on written communication, the 21st century is seeing an increase in assignments that require students to create poster presentations, develop online image-based blogs, or find visual examples to support written assignments. Public library patrons may be interested in sharing images with family or friends, or posting to image-based platforms like Tumblr.

While many institutions like the University of Idaho may subscribe to proprietary image databases like Artstor, there are also many online, open-source image repositories that are available to all libraries. One particularly comprehensive resource is the ALA Digital Images Collections guide, developed and maintained by Scott Spicer with the help of other librarians; this site indexes over 950 online digital repositories, with entries categorized by discipline or subject for ease of use. Another excellent resource is the Digital Public Library of America, containing over 7 million items from libraries, archives, and museums, including primary source materials as well as images. The Getty Museum has also recently released many of its images through an Open Content Program, allowing scholars and researchers the ability to use many of its images free of charge.

There are also crowd-sourced image repositories, such as Flickr’s Creative Commons search option, which allows users to limit to images that have been licensed through a Creative Commons license; a similar tool with more unusual search results is FlickrCC. Finally, many universities have created research guides for students on these topics; a particularly useful guide featuring public domain images has been developed by the University of California Irvine, library leaders in the field of visual literacy.

Manipulating Images

Once an image has been located, it may need to be manipulated depending on its ultimate destination. Often, reproducing images requires resizing, cropping, or other photo editing which can only be done with unique software. Students or patrons may need to shrink images to post on a blog, or crop images to fit in a school report; here at the University of Idaho, librarians often need to resize images to a smaller file size to reduce page load time online.

Some schools and libraries may have proprietary software such as Adobe Photoshop or Aperture, but there are also many open source, free image editing tools available. Perhaps the most popular of these resources is GIMP, which serves as a direct substitute for Photoshop. GIMP is freely available for download on many operating systems; users new to the software may find the free e-book Grokking the GIMP helpful, and there are also many YouTube and other web tutorials available for specific GIMP commands. Another free image editing software is Aviary, in which users can embed the free photo editor directly into their browser, download the editor into mobile apps for both iOS and Android, or download the standalone software. Like Aviary, Pixlr is a free web-based photo editor that lets users manipulate and edit photos in their browsers. Users in search of photos to edit might like the Pixlr Grabber feature, which lets users select images from the web and edit immediately. Check out their blog for additional tips and tricks.

Attributing Images

Images and other visual material needs to be credited when being used or otherwise reproduced, just as written resources are cited in bibliographies or works cited pages. Crediting images can take the form of either attributing or citing: both provide information about an image to help viewers locate the original source. Attribution is used when no citation style is required: all major citation styles have specific standard image citation formats. If attributing an image, include as much information as possible: image creator, title, date created, materials used, holding institution (if applicable), date retrieved, and web address.

An important issue in using images from the open web is the need to check licensing on each image before using or reproducing the image. Licensing exists to protect original work; many online images are covered using a Creative Commons license, which allows varying levels of use and reproduction. More information about Creative Commons licenses can be found at Many formal repositories, such as the Digital Public Library of America or the Getty, both mentioned above, have specific licensing restrictions on images. It is critical that patrons and students check the license on every single image they share, reproduce, or modify.

Evaluating Images

Just as students are asked to evaluate written information before using it in a paper or other assignment, images need to be evaluated, contextualized, and analyzed before being used to illustrate a concept or represent an argument. While there is no CRAAP test for images, UC Irvine has a very useful checklist for evaluating images; the University of Washington also has created a similar checklist that can guide students and patrons through the image evaluation process. Reading books about art appreciation and visual literacy[1] can also provide librarians context with which to help students evaluate images.

Relevance in the Classroom and to the Profession

The importance of visual literacy has strong implications for every day library work in public, school, and academic libraries, but it also has unique crossroads with library science that make it especially useful for classroom integration. Some possibilities for collaboration include workshops for community artists or art students on how to protect visual work in an online environment: presenting information on Creative Commons licenses, explaining issues facing intellectual property in the arts, and linking to resources such as the Artists’ Rights Society could be very useful to patrons and students alike. Visual literacy also has strong potential for a variety of cross-discipline collaborations in an academic library; for example, an instruction session on image copyright could be provided to journalism students creating a multimedia final presentation featuring historical images, or a session on finding science-specific images could be provided to graduate students seeking reputable illustrations for article submissions.

In addition to being useful for students and patrons, visual literacy standards also provide libraries with best practices to use in marketing and other promotional materials. Modeling visual literacy skills consistently in external communications such as websites, brochures, bookmarks, and blogs shows patrons and students that visual literacy is a valuable and important concept, and provides concrete examples to use when at the reference desk or in the classroom. Exploring opportunities to teach visual literacy may open up new areas for collaboration, and expanding our expertise in emerging fields of librarianship is a valuable way to remain relevant in the community or on campus.

Kristin J Henrich is Associate Professor and Librarian for Art & Architecture at the University of Idaho Library





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