Visual Literacy/Culture and Critical Librarianship

Last week I had the opportunity to moderate a chat on something I’ve become more and more interested in: Visual literacy and culture AND critical pedagogy. It was a very lively chat and I was happy to see so many art librarians join in, many for the first time. I started this blog post before the chat and have been chewing on it in small doses ever since, but here goes.

The chat, which is archived here, was meant to help us [librarians] define visual literacy within our contexts and look at the ways critical librarianship can address the unique way visual information can impact and influence critical perspectives on the culture we live in. From signage in the library to image use and creation in academia visual information wields significant power in our spaces. We’ll discuss how we teach ourselves how to identify critical issues in visual culture, how we raise awareness of these issues, and how we teach visual literacy alongside information literacy.

I wanted to take a little extra time to unpack each of the questions I posed during the chat since I am very interested in this topic and 140 characters is just never enough.

Q1 How do you define visual literacy and how does visual lit impact and influence our library spaces, intellectually/physically?

In order to define visual literacy I have to think back to when I first learned about it, as an undergraduate art education major. This was before the term “information literacy” ever entered my brainspace, also. I learned that this was something of importance to k-12 students and was especially applicable to the visual arts. Visual literacy and critical thinking went hand in hand, as I developed art lesson plans on everything from political comics to mask-making.

According to the ACRL Visual Literacy Standards it can be defined as, “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 article Visual Literacy Standards in Higher Education: New Opportunities for Libraries and Student Learning further explains that “In the past decade, definitions of visual literacy have incorporated new language and shifts in meaning, reflecting changes in technology, increasing interdisciplinary image use, and the importance of visual media in contemporary culture, particularly as a communication tool.”

In visual arts, as I learned it (over ten years ago), VL strongly relates to understanding principles and elements of art but I’ve come to a new understanding of the term as I’ve experimented with it in conjunction with information literacy in an Art and Design school context/as a librarian. Understanding visual literacy to be just as interdisciplinary as information literacy (that is it literally applies to every discipline) comes with understanding that visual information is an increasingly important communication tool. Visual elements have potential to influence the intellectual spaces we inhabit as librarians: How we use visuals may help and hinder learning, accessibility, and approachability. Learning to read visually alongside textually can really deepen understanding of important concepts at any stage, which is why we are seeing more and more graphic novel text books and examples of teaching with graphic novels. I believe visual information also has the potential to impact our library spaces through physical means: Signage, creating more visual handouts, book displays, spacial design, website design, etc.

Q2 What are some critical issues related to visual info and how can #critlib raise awareness of these issues?

There are many: Just as information literacy requires thorough evaluation of authority and context, so does visual information. I recently taught a student workshop that a colleague and I developed on developing characters in a way that was anti-stereotypical and anti-oppressive by first talking about and reflecting on examples that were already out in the world. Often times, characters are developed based on source and reference photos, so we talked about the value of considering the creator of the photo/image, bias that may exist, and the context or history in which it was created. Just as we look for bias in scholarly information, it is important to identify bias in visual information. It is also valuable to consider what and who is NOT included in visual materials, and the actual creation of those visual materials, we consume while also being mindful of how we portray others in visual representations we produce.

Others in the chat brought up the need to raise the visibility of hidden collections through digitization, exhibits, and cataloging. Zines, artists’ books, and artwork are obvious visual materials that are prime for raising awareness of critical issues through visual means within the library.

Q3 How have you learned of critical issues w/in visual culture/how do you share visual lit-related skills/concepts with colleagues?

As I said, I learned as an undergraduate art education major, and started looking very critically, and closely, at the ways our culture is saturated in visual information.  I’d like to do more with sharing this knowledge with colleagues because it isn’t taught in library school and hasn’t been discussed much in library literature. I hope to have some peer-to-peer discussions and workshops at my new job in the near future.

During a recent author reading I attended the author (a POC) briefly touched on how challenging it is to get a person of color on the cover of a book and it was important to him to find a publisher who would ensure this would not be an issue, since his books focus on diverse characters. This may be important when selecting books and displaying books. Beyond lack of inclusion there are also issues of image manipulation, such as changing skin tone, photoshopping models and perpetuating unrealistic/harmful body images, etc.

Librarians do educate one another more often than we may realize when visual misrepresentations come up within our profession–for example:


In April of last year, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) released the above poster in honor of Banned Books Week, which is one of ALA’s most important initiatives. Libraries of all shapes and sizes participate by creating programming for all ages, sponsoring read-outs, creating book displays, and launching social media campaigns to raise public awareness of and fight censorship that infringes on First Amendment rights, particularly the freedom to read anything. Many libraries also promote these efforts through displaying the official poster, bookmarks, and swag that OIF sells through the ALA store. The woman featured in the poster holds a book up to her face and peers out at us through a red “Do Not Enter” sign, “Readstricted” scrawled in big bold letters below. This is meant to point to censorship and raise awareness. However, in combination with the model’s brown skin and dark features the design raised several eyebrows as well.

The moment this poster was released to the library community there was a great deal of anger, discomfort, and disappointment. Many felt that the poster is Islamaphobic and oppressive; many feared it would alienate our Islamic patrons should they see these posters hanging in their library. Librarians initially took to their blogs and twitter where they, both Muslim and not, noted that the red “Do Not Enter” sign resembled a burqa or niqab, traditional veils worn by Muslim women. The text “Warning: Banned Books Restricts our Freedom to Read” had strong potential to feed into existing stereotypes about Muslim and Islamic women. The petition, which led to the eventual removal of the poster, got at the heart of the issue by stating that the poster seems to “equate Islam with censorship, and Muslim women as victims.”

This is visual literacy in action and librarians fought to change a negative representation immediately. The message and the context really made this poster more harmful than good. The value of looking, critically, at our visual materials within the profession and within our culture is an important part of what we do and is in line with information literacy as well. Yet, not many are talking about how or why we need to be doing this more often/intentionally.

Q4 How do you teach or address specific visual literacy concepts/issues within your community and library?

(ex: critiquing persuasive or manipulative strategies in image production, meaning, message, cultural and historical factors relevant to production of image)?

I share VL lessons through library workshops (like the one mentioned above), through creating impactful printed media for instruction, through considering user experience and, especially, considering the varied experiences and learning styles/strengths of those I am working with. Critical/feminist pedagogy is about considering our students as whole individuals and I try to think through my use of visual information in terms of how it will help students learn and try to avoid visual information that may simply complicate learning. Even when I’m not teaching VL directly I am considering how I use visual information and hope that it can serve as a model to others. I also created a mapping between the ACRL Framework and VL standards to help connect the dots between the two and help bridge VL standards across disciplines/contextualize the framework for the visual art students I currently work with.

In my future blog posts I intend to share examples of VL and IL successful lessons, instruction strategies, and collaborative projects. Stay tuned!

Scholarship as (an inclusive) Conversation?

Recently, I’ve come across a lot of readings that have triggered thoughts on the ACRL Framework concepts, particularly Scholarship as Conversation. To get a less heady overview of what this concept means, check out this video:

As much as I’ve embraced the Framework in how I’ve let it inform my instruction and work with students, I’ve also questioned how these ideals play out in the real world, in the wild. I know that there are mixed feelings about resources that allow for participation and open dialog–Wikipedia comes to mind. The video makes it all sound so simple, and yes, it can be simple if you ignore the underlying issues involved with actually participating in scholarly dialog. One of the dispositions of this frame is that learners should “recognize that systems privilege authorities and that not having a fluency in the language and process of a discipline disempowers their ability to participate and engage.” This brings us to the academic publishing model and why students aren’t making the immediate connection that they, too, can participate in scholarly conversations.

David Wiley recently published an article entitled Eminent Open Access: A Little Thought Experiment in which he discusses many issues (and possible solutions) with the academic publishing model, how this slows innovation and advancement, and how it excludes scholars from reading even their own peers’ work or having access to their work at a later date:

If she [the academic author] hoped to keep her job, she was forced to give away – literally give away – any and all rights to her own work so that journals could charge outrageous sums of money to prevent most people from reading it. Adding insult to injury, the journal then also charged the author to purchase back copies of her own words, which of course were no longer hers but now the sole ‘property’ of the publisher. (And did I mention she also has to serve as a volunteer reviewer for the journal in order to meet her service obligations to earn tenure?) Today, authors have the privilege of not only doing all the research, writing all the words, and being volunteer review labor for the journal, but if they want to retain control over their writing they can also pay the journal $1500 – $3000 per article they publish. Makes you want to write more, doesn’t it?

A novice might see an opportunity to publish (because “publish or perish”) without realizing these ramifications and without questioning who or what their work could help should it be made more widely available. While prestige may outweigh innovation in some folks’ eyes, I’d encourage you to open up and look at how this holds your field back. By sharing new discoveries and ideas we can evolve and if you’re not trying to evolve, then what are you doing?

As a librarian, I see the value of providing more access across the disciplines and I’ve noticed a trend towards open knowledge databases across campuses. I was excited most recently by the Wired article on MIT’s Media Lab open access Journal of Design and Science or JoDS.

JoDS is run very differently from a traditional academic publication. There’s no anonymized peer-review process, and there’s no fee to access its contents. ‘We wondered what does an academic paper look like when it’s more about the conversation, and less about tombstones,’ Ito says, referring to a quote from Stewart Brand that likens formal academic publishing to burying ideas like the dead.

This publishing model allows for anyone to critically evaluate contributions made by others in a participatory information environment, where several disciplines intersect, overlap, inform. The MIT Media Lab has pushed an “antidisciplinary” approach to the new journal, stating that it’s “about working in spaces that simply do not fit into any existing academic discipline—a specific field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods.” This project is very much in line with the idea that scholarship is a conversation and meant for all. Unlike platforms like Wikipedia (which do wonders for building public knowledge and engaging in these conversations!), you still have experts writing the articles, but the robust community-sourced feedback options allow for everyone to share ideas and argue their points, so long as you understand the discourse and language.

So my question is how do we get (more*) students, particularly traditionally underrepresented folks, to participate more in the conversations around this topic and encourage them to listen to the conversations that interest them most so that one day they can contribute to online learning/publishing environments? Not only that, but as they become experts in their field, so they can champion these open access and innovative approaches? My guess is that this video will not suffice in encouraging that level of understanding or action.

*I added this example of an awesome student-created platform for sharing diverse ideas and perspectives after my initial post


A Creative Manifesto

  1. Experiment (“live life like you’re collecting girl scout badges”)
  2. Question everything! And ask good questions.
  3. “Yes, and…” (take an idea and improve, grow, or foster its development)
  4. Find your weakness, acknowledge it, and challenge it.
  5. Say thank you for your moments of success.
  6. Say thank you for your failures.
  7. Keep a cabinet of curiosities and rearrange it often.
  8. Consider yourself part of the “conversation,” don’t wait to be invited.
  9. Go outside and play.
  10. Find your people.

#Critlib #feelings

This week’s critlib chat involves some homework, so here are some of my feels.

Why are you a critical librarian? Why do you identify with these ideas?

There isn’t a straight forward answer to either of these questions because there are so many reasons and places to start. I’ve always found value in caring for others and I’ve come to realize that recognizing others’ and my own humanity allows me to be most effective as a teaching librarian, possibly as a human too. I suppose this makes me a critical/feminist librarian, but I would say that while I identify with many ideas shared across the critlib community I do so to varying degrees and levels of understanding (I’m still learning!). I’m reading bell hooks and Paulo Freire and finding that a lot of what they have to say resonates with me and some of their ideas fit with my background in k-12 education, as a queer woman, and as a first generation college go-er, to name a few…

I really believe my role as a critical librarian is to provide opportunities for  learning and reflection, validate others’ experiences, challenge personal bias, and help shape the world into a place where I would like to live–free of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all of the other “isms” that run rampant in our culture.

Why do you participate in these chats?

First. Solidarity. And community. There are certain things that are discussed via critlib that aren’t discussed in many work environments. For me, it’s helpful to have an engaged community to learn from and share ideas with outside of my colleagues. It’s good to have that one hour every couple of weeks to dedicate to thinking through really challenging issues with like-minded folks.

Second. The chats get me to think about my own experiences and how I might effect change in my own practice as a librarian; how can I improve what I’m doing and raise awareness in myself and others?

Thank you, to the critlib organizers and all of those who participate in some capacity. I’m grateful to continually learn from you and find inspiration through our conversations.


Atlanta Zine Fest Fun

July is International Zine Month and many major cities and zine communities host workshops, events, and zine fests to celebrate, including Atlanta. This was the AZF’s third year and it was set to be bigger and better than ever. I hadn’t been to previous AZF events, and only had Chicago’s zine fest to compare, but I was excited by the schedule and programming. To hear more about it you can read these Creative Loafing and Burnaway magazine articles!

I’ve never made a zine that wasn’t part of a collaborative project, but I’ve made many books on my own. So, when I decided I was going to apply to be a part of the Atlanta Zine Fest I had a ton of prep work to do and it felt like I was putting myself out there in a new way. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would make. Initially, I thought I’d make something about being a librarian, but as soon as I was accepted I found inspiration in other unexpected areas of my life. I was seeing many posts on social media about people who were being harassed by others who were “trying to flirt” or hit on them. It was gross and I felt it needed to be addressed, so I made a zine on feminist flirting and got input from over twenty people! I also had a lot going on this past year with my own mental health, most of which I kept to myself but had finally processed enough that I felt I could put a tiny bit out into the universe in a thoughtful way, so I made a zine about the butterfly I raised last year which was a meditative and metaphoric process.

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Work in progress “Raising Wolfram” zine.
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Work in progress “Feminist Flirting” zine.
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Finished artists’ book self preservation book (from my RWL workshop), “Raising Wolfram”, and “Feminist Flirting” zines. Note: I’d just finished the feminist flirting zine and it still needed to be copied and assembled, but I was also enjoying a glass of wine while drawing the last few pages, when my cat decided to jump up onto my crowded desk. She spilled wine all over it and I almost cried; luckily it was white wine and the pages were just a little crinkly after that. None of the ink bled, miraculously. Lesson=do not keep beverages near your work when there is a cat in the house. An amateur mistake I won’t be making again.

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This was the cat tchotchke that I made (above and below). Each cat was given a famous author’s name in the form of a cat pun (Chuck Felineiuk, for example). I LOVED creating this–drawing the cats and coming up with the names was so fun. Thanks to my friend, Sarah Lu, for also helping me come up with a few of the names (she’s the best at puns). My favorite part of the day at Zine Fest was watching people react to the tchotchke and I nearly sold out of them. I’ve made them available as a download on Etsy so that you can print as many as you’d like to amuse yourself and your friends. There are future plans for another, dog-themed, tchotchke.2015-07-18 11.56.19Table set up at AZF, complete with my dear partner who stayed with me all day (Thank YOU! <3).
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I had an awesome time and am truly grateful for this experience and the people that I met through participating! Atlanta is looking a lot brighter these days and I’m looking forward to spending more time in the arts community. A huge thank you to everyone who stopped by my table. And thank you to Murmur Media and Eyedrum for hosting such a great event.2015-07-18 11.58.55

Spring Quarter

Life-long learning means so many different things to different people. Many librarians will tell you that it is highly important to them and something that they strive to foster in their communities. It’s certainly something that I strive for in myself, and something that I adore seeing in others–this passion for learning that is insatiable. I love that.

I’ve been quiet on my blog because I’ve been pouring most of my energy into my work. What little I have left has been going into my schoolwork. That’s right, I decided to start taking classes again. One of the amazing perks of working in an academic library is the opportunity to take classes (usually) for free from the school. So, before this quarter started, I compiled a portfolio, gathered my transcripts, and applied to the MFA writing program at SCAD. By my calculations, taking one class at a time will allow me to graduate in about 5 years, but I’m not in any rush. I thought long and hard about what I really wanted this degree for before applying. I could have applied to any number of programs, or just taken classes without applying or putting it towards a degree. The reasons I chose the writing program are simple: I knew it’d be a real challenge and it’d help me in my work as a librarian.

So far I was right about it being a challenge. SCAD is more rigorous than any of my previous schools. Not only that, but my work in the library is my number one priority and I love what I’m doing. Because I love it so dearly, I put a lot of energy into it. For the first time in my life my priority isn’t school, it’s the work, and that has been an interesting shift. I am happy that I work in an environment where I learn something, many things, every day. I learn from the students who I interact with, my colleagues, and the amazing, inspiring books at my finger tips. I want to be a better writer, but ultimately, I want to be a better librarian.

The first class that I was enrolled in (which is now in week 8/10) was Freelance Writing for Publication–a magazine writing course. This is something I never thought I’d be interested in doing and I’m still not sold. It’s given me a lot to consider for writing in general, though. It’s also sparked some new interest in magazines that I hadn’t really paid attention to for a while (Is this a scholarly source? No? Put it away. Ain’t nobody got time for that.). I’m also happy to take what I’ve learned and apply it to blogging, maybe. We’ll see.

This quarter I also spent some time in Portland, OR (one of the places I call home!) for the #critlib and ACRL 2015 conferences. It was both amazing and overwhelming. There was a lot of programming on the new ACRL Info Lit Framework and how to work with it to develop better library instruction. I also went to Puerto Rico for vacation. Both of these trips were needed. Both of these trips were incredibly disruptive of my work/class business. But, come on, look at this view and tell me it wasn’t worth it:

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It was so worth it.

In addition to the class and travels and work, I’ve been brainstorming creative projects to focus on this summer. One exciting creative project is the zine that I’m dreaming up for the Atlanta Zine Fest. I was just notified today that I got in as a vendor, so I can share some of my bookish creations at the fest but also need some zines. Maybe I’ll make more than one zine. Go crazy. Hog wild, even. Either way, it has to wait until after this quarter ends and my energy is back.

I Bring My Whole Self to Work.

There are so many things to consider when you’re up for a new job, particularly if said new job requires you to move. “Does it pay enough to justify the move?”; “What is the work environment like?”; “Will I like this new city?”; “Will I need to buy a car?”; and my favorite, “Are my future coworkers homophobic?”.

By the time I interviewed at SCAD, I’d definitely encountered toxic work environments where homophobia and transphobia (not to mention racism) was alive and well. Several of the libraries where I had interviews had also given me less-than-progressive vibes. In job hunting, as well as in life, I do my best to make it known that I’m part of the LGBTQ community. Which is why I showed up to my interview with a freshly cut mullet (that was an accident, but I’m sure it cued them in a bit none-the-less) and a resume sprinkled with LGBTQ service work.

I recently discovered that 51% of employees were not out to anyone at work in 2009 (Degrees of Equality, HRC). My guess would be that this number has decreased since 2009 since there has been progress in the fight for equality for the LGBTQ community, but for now we’ll stick with this number. Over half. To me, that is unacceptable. Part of my responsibility as a librarian is to help make people feel welcomed and safe in the library, regardless of any part of their identity. I’ve witnessed otherwise in libraries and I can say that it was my most painful professional experience. So, part of my approach to dealing with any potential issue around this subject is to be open, entirely, with those around me about who I am. It allows me to make space for others and it allows me to bring my whole self to work.

I’m not saying that every LGBTQ person should throw caution to the wind and out themselves, but there are serious benefits to being open. This helpful guide about coming out at work (HRC) may be of use to some who need to assess their unique situation more.

When it came time to assess my situation, I had a lot weighing on the scales. My new job was in the south, Georgia, where there is less acceptance and no non-discriminatory laws in place to protect people of differing sexual and gender representations. It’s one of the last states to allow same-sex marriage. This is the hometown of Chick-Fil-A. These facts made me nervous. So, during my interview I casually mentioned my partner, my concerns for moving to the south and the LGBTQ community, and gauged the responses that I got: They were all positive and reassuring, across the board. SCAD is incredibly diverse and progressive and I was even more delighted to find that my coworkers and boss were as well. Good. I couldn’t have made this move if I wasn’t working with people who valued me for who I am as well as the professional skills I bring to the library.

I love making.

I started an Etsy account way back in 2011, as a way to sell some bike kerchiefs that I was making at the time. A month or so ago I started making microfiche earrings, books, cardigan clips, and bracelets to sell on my Etsy; I actually really wanted to find a good cardigan clip and wasn’t satisfied with what I was finding on Etsy so I thought I’d make my own. That’s what started this whole thing. Then, I realized I have some vintage jewelry and clothes that I don’t really need or wear, so why not add those in?

I’m not great at promoting my shop, but I’ve still had several sales since breathing new life into it this year. I’m really happy to know that many of my friends, and even some strangers, are wearing some of my creations and vintage treasures.


My favorite collar clip that I’ve made, using vintage buttons and upcycled chains.20150110_145842

A funky bracelet made with dental xrays and vintage chain. 20150118_105933

Sweet little southern Oregon map journal, using very special paper that I bought when I was living in Budapest for the summer. I was pretty obsessed with all the different little graph papers, but the notebooks themselves were so flimsy. My solution? Mixing it all together and binding it into a solid hardcover journal.

Microfiche film bracelet.


Another collar/cardigan clip using vintage beads and buttons.mfb6And finally, the very unique microfiche earrings!

Should you visit the shop and want to purchase something, please use the coupon code “ACORNBLOG” for free shipping on all orders over $10 (expires Feb 28)!


In September, before I was officially offered the research and instruction librarian position, I had one of those unnerving tooth dreams. The kind of dream that is so real it leaves you constantly tonguing your mouth to make sure it wasn’t a real life event. This was different from any other tooth dream I’d ever had: No loose teeth (read: feeling unsettled and unsure about something), no crumbling teeth (read: fear of getting older), and no losing my teeth (read: anxiety, loss of control, and fear of failure). No, in this dream, I grew EXTRA teeth and it was possibly more disturbing than any of the other tooth dream scenarios. Like a shark, I grew another row of teeth.

Of course, I waited a few days before Googling what that meant. I assumed all toothy dreams related to anxiety and loss on some level. What I found when I went searching was quite the opposite. Growing extra teeth represents new opportunities, or  graduating to a new stage in one’s career. You see, we have two sets of teeth; our baby teeth and adult teeth. Additional teeth growing in and/or replacing our adult teeth “signifies a very positive message that [one has] an abundance of opportunities available to them that will retrieve positive results”.

Huh. Unnerving as it was, this dream was absolutely positive. I’d reached a milestone in my life and in my career and my subconscious recognized this growth, interpreting it for me in a most unsettling way. Shortly after, I was offered the job that I would accept and move to Atlanta, GA for.

I’ve been in this position since November, but Winter Quarter was the first opportunity that I had to teach and take full responsibility for the instruction happening in the library. Each quarter is only ten weeks long, and I’ve taught approximately 25 classes, given several library orientations, and met one-on-one with over 20 students–this sounds exhausting when I write it out like that. The truth is, it isn’t. It’s far less exhausting than it was to work multiple part-time jobs, volunteer, and apply to new jobs in my “free time”. I find myself in a comfortable, busy, productive and creative space as I settle into these responsibilities and my new community. Exactly as my dream predicted I am garnering positive results and I am growing into my profession.