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Visual Literacy  

Provides information on citing images, copyright, teaching visual literacy, finding images, and more.
Last Updated: Jul 19, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Why it's difficult to define

The term “Visual Literacy” was first used in 1969 by John Debes, an important figure in the history of the International Visual Literacy Association. Debes’ defined the term as:

“Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication.”

However, there are many more definitions of the term. In fact, nearly each visual literacist has produced his/her own! Understandably, the coexistence of so many disciplines that lie at the foundation of the concept of Visual Literacy, thus causing and at the same time emphasizing the eclectic nature of it, is the major obstacle towards a unanimously agreed definition of the term.*


*Maria D. Avgerinou, Ph.D., O.E.T.
Educational Technology & Psychology
The Hellenic Open University


What is Visual Literacy?

According to the definition rendered by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL): "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." 

The ACRL goes on to state:

"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 meanings of images and visual media
• 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."

The ACRL's perspective includes points that emphasize that the visual literate individual designs and creates her/his own meaningful images; to do so the individual would need to know the nature and extent of which visual materials are required.

From a researcher's perspective, however, it can be argued that the emphasis is on one knowing how to interpret visual materials that they may encounter while finding information.

The tabs above may be helpful from both points of emphasis. For example, the "Finding Images" tab could help users of visual materials by facilitating discovery of images (pictures/symbols/icons) that could be used in creating a visual, while the "Citing Images" might be more helpful in giving credit to the creators of visual materials.



Differing Definitions of Visual Literary

Attendees at the 47th International Visual Literacy Association Conference (2015) were asked to define "visual literacy" in their own terms. 


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