Standards Introduction

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be posting each Standard individually for comment and discussion, starting here with the Introduction. Please let us know what you think – general feedback and detailed suggestions welcome. The open comment period on the draft Standards is now through March 31. See the side bar for a link to the complete draft Standards document. Thank you for your interest and participation!


The increasing dominance of images and visual media in contemporary culture is changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Today’s society is highly visual, and visual imagery is no longer supplemental to other forms of information. New digital technologies have made it possible for almost anyone to create and share visual media. Yet the pervasiveness of images and visual media does not necessarily mean that individuals are able to critically view, use, and produce visual content. Individuals must develop these essential skills in order to engage capably in a visually-oriented society. Visual literacy empowers individuals to participate fully in a visual culture.

Visual Literacy Defined

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.

In an interdisciplinary, higher education environment, a visually literate individual is able to:

  • Determine the nature and extent of the visual materials needed
  • Find and access needed images and visual media effectively and efficiently
  • Interpret and analyze the meaning of images and visual media
  • Critically evaluate images and their sources
  • Use images and visual media effectively
  • Design and create meaningful images and visual media
  • Understand many of the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues surrounding the creation and use of images and visual media, and access and use visual materials ethically

Visual Literacy and Higher Education

Across disciplines, students engage with images and visual materials throughout the course of their education. Although students are expected to understand, use, and create images in academic work, they are not always prepared to do so. Scholarly work with images requires research, analysis, and evaluation skills specific to visual materials. These abilities cannot be taken for granted, and need to be taught, supported, and integrated into the curriculum.

Notably, some K-12 and higher education standards include visual literacy as one of several key literacies needed for success in contemporary society.1 Many discussions of transliteracy, metaliteracy, and multimodal literacy also include visual literacy among the literacies important for today’s learners. A diverse body of literature on visual literacy and visual studies also exists. Yet standards outlining student learning goals around interdisciplinary visual literacy in higher education have not been articulated. The Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education address this gap in the literature, and provide tools for educators seeking to pursue visual literacy with college and university students.

The Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education establish an intellectual framework and structure to facilitate the development of skills and competencies required for students to engage with images in an academic environment, and critically use and produce visual media throughout their professional lives. The Standards articulate observable learning outcomes that can be taught and assessed, supporting efforts to develop measurable improvements in student visual literacy. In addition to providing tools for educators across disciplines, the Standards offer a common language for discussing student use of visual materials in academic work and beyond.

Visual Literacy and Information Literacy

The Visual Literacy Standards were developed in the context of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, and are intended to complement the Information Literacy Standards. The Visual Literacy Standards address some of the unique issues presented by visual materials. Images often function as information, but they are also aesthetic and creative objects that require additional levels of interpretation and analysis. Finding visual materials in text-based environments requires specific types of research skills. The use, sharing, and reproduction of visual materials also raise particular ethical or legal considerations. The Standards address these distinct characteristics of images and visual media and challenge students to develop a combination of abilities related to information literacy, visual communication, interpretation, and technology and digital media use.

Implementation and Use of the Standards

The Standards may be used as a whole, or in part, depending on curricular needs and overall learning goals of a program or institution. A visual studies course or a year-long series of courses involving visual materials may be an appropriate context for full implementation of the Standards. In other circumstances, the individual Standards may be more useful as stand-alone tools for teaching and assessing specific sets of learning outcomes. Depending on the assignment or project, it is possible that two or three of the standards would be applicable and useful, but the remaining standards would not be relevant. Implementation of the Standards may also vary across disciplines, depending on how visual materials are used in that discipline. Individual disciplines may choose to articulate additional discipline-specific visual literacy learning outcomes.

Visual literacy education is typically a collaborative endeavor, involving faculty, librarians, curators, archivists, and learning technologists. Integrating visual literacy into the curriculum requires partnerships and shared implementation strategies across academic departments and units. Libraries play an important role in this process by selecting and providing quality image resources, developing research and subject guides for images, teaching image research strategies, and raising awareness of the ethical use of visual media.  Libraries are also established partners in working with students to develop the critical thinking and evaluation skills essential to participation in visual culture.

Standards Development Process

The Visual Literacy Competency Standards were collaboratively written by the members of the Visual Literacy Standards Task Force (VLTF), using the Information Literacy Competency Standards as a foundational document. In March 2010, the ACRL Information Literacy Standards Committee gave support to the ACRL Image Resources Interest Group’s (IRIG) proposal to develop Visual Literacy Competency Standards. The ACRL/IRIG Visual Literacy Standards Task Force reviewed the visual literacy and standards literature and developed a public bibliography in Zotero; appointed an Advisory Group comprised of librarians, technologists, curators, and administrators; created a blog for communication and community engagement; conducted open meetings and discussion groups; and engaged in outreach with multiple organizations. The first public draft of the Standards was distributed in February 2011.


1. Two of these standards are Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, American Association of School Librarians, 2007,; and NCTE Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment, National Council of Teachers of English, 2008,

the standards as concept map

As we outline and write the Visual Literacy Standards, we will also display them as a concept map. The first version is below and also shared on XMind. Hopefully, this is a helpful way to visualize the visual literacy standards!

Visual Literacy Standards

working definition of visual literacy

We now have a working definition of visual literacy for the Standards project:

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Images and visual media may include photographs, illustrations, drawings, maps, diagrams, advertisements, and other visual messages and representations, both still and moving. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, and technical components involved in the construction and use of images and visual media. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.

Please continue to comment and discuss – we always welcome feedback!

question for open comment: how do you define visual literacy?

Looking at the visual literacy definitions and the component list below, what stands out as least/most important? Are there any elements that should not be included, or elements that you feel are missing?

(We are defining visual literacy in the context of an interdisciplinary, information-literacy-based, higher education environment.)

definitions of visual literacy from ALA open meeting

The following five definitions of visual literacy came out of the VL Task Force open meeting at ALA:

1.  Visual literacy is the ability to find, interpret, analyze, evaluate, use, and create visual messages. A visually literate person is able to understand the aesthetic, cultural, contextual, and subjective components involved in the ways that visual messages are constructed and used for communication.

2. Visual literacy is the ability to find, use, interpret, evaluate, and create assets/images with appropriate understanding of technical, legal, and interpretive considerations. This should include the ability to build, distribute, present, describe, use, and store visual collections.

3. Visual literacy is a set of competencies. It includes the ability to find, evaluate and assess, use, create, present, and understand the appropriate and legal use of images.

4. Visual literacy includes competencies in the following areas: Express the need to find; How to find – evaluate source, learning to use multiple access mechanisms; Images have multiple meanings – evaluate image & data appropriateness; Technical issues – how to use in multiple applications, capture, formats; Copyright/legal/citing; Managing own collections of images.

5. Visual literacy is a process involving knowledge of and competency with the following skills and concepts:
-awareness of formats and desired outcomes; -capability to find, sort, and manage objects using a variety of evolving tools; -capability to critically evaluate and interpret objects in their context for a specific use; -understanding of a base level of technical skill required to accomplish the task(s); -understanding of ethical considerations involving appropriate attribution and citation; -understanding of legal copyright and intellectual property issues;
As an outcome of this process, a visually literate individual will be not only a consumer of media, but also a contributer to a body of shared knowledge and culture.

Many thanks to participants for these contributions!

Please continue the conversation here.

components of visual literacy


VLTF open meeting, ALA 2010, components of vl

To start our discussion of visual literacy at ALA, we broke out into small groups, and each group generated ideas about specific components of visual literacy. Each idea got its own post-it note. Groups then discussed which components/competencies should be included in a definition of visual literacy, and wrote definitions based on their discussion and conclusions. Groups reported out on their ideas and definitions, and we discussed as a large group.

Here are some of the ideas for components of visual literacy participants came up with (in no particular order, unedited):

using images as communication tool
discourse – recognizing the use of images in communities
visual messages
understanding aesthetic values
find images
create images
interpreting meaning of an image
recognizing subjectivity of images
understand moving images/videos
creator important to give context, intent, and credit
express need to find image
evaluate sources
learning to use multiple access mechanisms
metadata – making it access
technical issues – file formats, storage, resolution
images about multiple meanings
evaluating image – appropriateness
evaluating data – appropriateness, accuracy
how to use images in multiple applications – ppt, written paper
copyright, fair use, legalities – for different applications
managing own collections of images
citing images
finding images in text sources
critical thinking – aesthetic, historical, manipulated?
understanding different image resources – open web, licensed databases, proprietary
presentation of images
understand social & cultural context of image
finding images – high quality, high resolution, color fidelity
who is the creator, when, where manipulated?
assessing credibility
creating images
what do you need

Please add to the list and discuss.

discussion topic for ALA

The visual literacy standards working groups will be meeting at ALA, and our discussion topic is:

Define visual literacy in the context of an interdisciplinary, information-literacy-based environment

We welcome your thoughts on the topic, too! Please add your ideas to the comments.

context for ACRL VL standards

Visual literacy is a topic with a broad and deep reach, with experts and practitioners in many disciplines and areas of teaching and learning.  For the ACRL visual literacy standards, we will be looking at visual literacy in the following context:

  • Interdisciplinary perspective
  • Higher education
  • Information-literacy environment

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