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,


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