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!